I recently posted an extensive Code of Ethics and Journalistic Practice to The Public Record, which includes a section on gifts.
As a journalist, I have to be very careful as to what I do or do not take. I don’t have a “Gift Policy” that is set in stone – because situations dictate what is appropriate or not.
Also, I took some significant junkets during my time at Maclean’s and The Globe and Mail – hence I can’t preach on the subject - to the Persian Gulf.
During my time at both national publications, I took travel and accommodation to Qatar for the WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) conferences. In this case, I had – at first – declined the offer of attendance. Upon informing my editor, I was advised to accept the offer and attend the conference.
At present, I accept in-kind services from a few Hamilton independent technology contractors that includes server space, hosting, services, and other items I’m not capable of producing myself. In each case, the contributions are from long-time friends and in no way influence my journalism.
I have been invited by long-time friends to join them at local events, with them covering the tickets. I often tweet at these events. My friends do not gain from this coverage, as it is well outside of my coverage.
Gifts are a common part of mainstream journalism, but not part of my practice.
I accept no gifts from any person or corporation in the course of my journalism, with a few exceptions listed below where the gift is an unavoidable part of covering a story or of an insignificant nature fully available to all public attendees of an event.
Gift Amount Limitations
No gift shall be accepted unless covered by the exceptions below. If the item is of greater value than a sticker or keychain, it shall be declined.
Avoiding Conflict of Interest
There are a few journalist who expect free stuff as part of covering openings, special events, or reviewing new products. This creates the appearance of conflict of interest as it appears there is an exchange of favourable coverage for the gift.
It creates a pressure for those seeking coverage to provide perks; special coupons offering significant discounts, special access, and other perks. (This IKEA per-opening event in Winnipeg had it all for journalists) which left one blogger thinking it was time to change careers to enjoy media perks)
This undermines public trust.
When a new grocery store opened in Downtown Hamilton, a media invitation was extended to local media. Media outlets were informed that journalists attending would receive a significant gift card from the store for personal use, a wide selection of free food, and other perks for attending. Outlets were encourage to send as many journalists as they wished.
All local publications sent multiple people to the media preview.
This new grocery store received raving uncritical coverage and the journalists received their freebies. The appearance of conflict is clear, the store received overwhelmingly positive coverage – including tweets from multiple reporters from each outlet – and journalists left with their freebies.
I declined the invitation because of these gifts.
I did not tweet about the new store until after it opened when I attended as a proper paying customer. I live five blocks from the store and often shop there.
One other media outlet shared the concern about conflict of interest.
YourHamiltonBiz staff returned to their offices with the gifts. Their editor, upon learning of the gift cards, made staff donate them to a local food charity.
Available to the public
I cover all meetings at City Hall and many other public events such as town halls. These sometimes include a vegetable platter, cookies, juices, soda pop, or even pizza. Only when this items are available to all attendees do I consume some as well.
There is a practical purpose to the food and drink being present – these meetings can be long or happen during meal times. With some days seeing my first meeting at 8:00am (Citizen sub-committees) and ending after midnight (Council and School Board), and prohibitions on outside food or drink; it is practical for me to have these snacks.
When needed, I have accepted rides from local politicians from town hall events in rural areas. These rides are rare (having only occurred twice, once during the casino town hall in Flamborough and the other a late evening public hearing at Stoney Creek Municipal Centre. In both cases, the ride was to the nearest public transit hub)
After covering the large Dundas industrial fire in November 2012, I was given a ride home by an emergency official at 4:00am. I was exhausted and they wanted to ensure I made it home safe after a long night of reporting.
From Friends – the people I have drinks with and don’t “talk shop”
My friendships overlap with my work relationships. Many of my friends from university now work in communications, many of my friends from when I was politically involved remain friends. There are friends who are engaged in our community.
More than a few times, these friends have sent a pizza or food my way when I'm trapped at a marathon meeting.
Past Disclosure: when working at national outlets
During my time employed by Maclean’s Magazine, I often attending press events that involved costly catering – free to journos – received many books for review, and declined a free smartphone.
In January 2009, I was offered a junket to Doha, Qatar to attend a higher education conference. I declined the invitation. I informed my editor that I declined and was instructed to accept the invitation to have the opportunity to cover, learn, and network at the conference. The trip was lavish to say the least.
In November 2009, I was offered again. This time I was working on contract with The Globe and Mail and was allowed to take the trip.