The Ethics Involved in Navigating Perks in Writing Jobs

By Robert Israel

In The Kid, a biography about the late Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, author Ben Bradlee, Jr. documents how those toiling at newspaper writing jobs during the 20th century routinely enjoyed perks lavished upon them by baseball clubs:

“It was common practice for ball clubs to pay all the expenses of the writers when the teams traveled,” Bradlee writes. “The reporters would stay at the best hotels, order from room service, and eat at fine restaurants. . . . In return for such largesse, the clubs expected—even demanded—favorable coverage, and they received it.”

Staff and freelance writers may find not much has changed in the 21st century. Brands routinely offer writers freebies as ways to further their understanding of subject matter and develop relationships with freelancers. But writers and the company’s they work for need to be very careful when navigating this terrain. There is no standard rule when it comes to accepting perks, so it’s best to check with your employer or the company you’re writing for before accepting any gifts. One publication may post a policy prohibiting them, while another may leave it up to the writer’s discretion. But here are how some of the biggest names in the business deal with the issue.

Generally Accepted Practice

Gannett, a mega-publisher with 81 newspapers and numerous broadcasting holdings nationally, issued this statement for its Salem, Oregon property, The Statesman Journal.

“We will pay our own way, whenever appropriate,” the statement declares, in part. “Journalists covering sporting events, plays, movie screenings, and other events may attend without paying if this is the generally accepted practice.”

Note there’s underlying wiggle room: “if this is the generally accepted practice” (italics mine). Reporters may rightfully claim that accepting a freebie is indeed the “accepted practice,” to the best of their knowledge. This is pretty standard for movie and theater reviewers.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), a journalism advocacy group, takes a firmer stance:

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel, and special treatment . . . if they compromise journalistic integrity,” SPJ advises its members in their published Code of Ethics (italics mine).

A Writer’s Perspective

“I don’t accept any money, free products, or anything else of value, from the companies whose products I cover, or from public relations or advertising agencies,” writes Walter Mossberg, personal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal. “I also do not accept tips, speaking fees, or product discounts from companies I cover.”

The only exception, Mossberg notes, are free T-shirts. “I do occasionally take a free T-shirt from these companies, but my wife hates it when I wear them, as she considers them ugly.”

The best advice, if you have doubts, is to ask publication’s managers their policy on freebies before accepting the assignment. If the answer is vague, make your decision based on your own personal code of ethics. Always read the fine print and approach the assignment as you would any other, informed and awake as to what’s expected. Remember, your name is on the byline, and you align yourself with any brand you write marketing copy for online.

There are differences between freebies and fellowships. When I accepted a fellowship to travel to and report from Japan, for example, I took a leave of absence from my newspaper job in the States. The fellowship provided me with housing, meals, entertainment, transportation to, from, and within Japan, translators, and a cash stipend over an eight-week period. There were no requirements from my hosts other than to attend meetings and to interview subjects for potential articles. When I returned home, I disclosed in all my articles that I was a recipient of the fellowship and credited my sponsors for their support.

While we may not have come too far from the days when reporters enjoyed fraternizing with baseball players over potent drinks and steak dinners at fancy hotels at the ball club’s expense, there is more scrutiny than ever before. Writers, who define themselves as laborers in the truth-telling business, are strongly advised to heed the temptations and to chart an honest course.

**

Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. This report was originally published by Skyword, Inc.

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