Reporters and gifts

This past week at The Gazette  I experienced a case of real-world journalism ethics in my reporting.

This week I had a great interview with a source on Thursday. The source was very kind and offered to buy me Chinese food for lunch during the interview. My journalism ethics hairs stood on end and I had to respectfully say no and explain why I could not accept gifts. The source seemed confused, but let the interview continue.

On Monday, after I finished writing the article, a photographer had gone out to take photos of the source for my story. The photographer brought back an envelope from the source, who he said had told him I had left something behind. I am pretty thorough and check before I leave anywhere, so I was expecting it to be another gift.

I opened the envelope and found a Starbucks gift card. The source was offering a very nice gesture, but as a reporter I could not accept it.

Reporters, or anyone in the news media, can’t accept gifts from sources. It’s ingrained in our psyches and written in our code of ethics. Accepting gifts can cause reporters to write favorably or not objectively. It can sway a reporter’s article. Since reporters must remain objective, accepting gifts of any kind may seem to the public like an approval of one side. Gifts, favors and special treatment can conflict with journalistic independence.

But sources may not be aware of this important ethical principle for journalists.

After speaking to my editor about the ethical issue, we decided I should mail back the gift card with a thank you note and explain again why I appreciate the thoughtfulness, but cannot accept any gifts since I am in the media. This is a difficult issue to solve because I don’t want to offend any sources that I have to say “thanks, but no thanks” to. But that is the territory with reporting.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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