Does accepting press gifts compromise the integrity of journalism?
An ever-present topic in a journalist’s world, Team TMN reaches out to two such professionals to get their opinions on the subject…
“YES” says Richard Jenkins, Deputy Editor, Hot Media Publishing
“If a writer is sent, for example, a bottle of expensive perfume, then that brand will be at the forefront of their mind the next time a feature about perfume comes up and will almost certainly be featured”
To answer this question I’d like to start with a quick word from one of the fiercest minds in the last hundred years of writing – George Orwell. He said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” For me, that should always be at the forefront of a journalist’s mind whenever they are working on a story. After all, why would a PR send out a gift if not to try and sway the journalist’s mind? At Hot Media, we are obliged to ask our line manager if a press gift comes to a value above AED75.
That said, it’s rare that I am gifted something material anyway. Most of the things that I am treated to as a lifestyle journalist is experiential – does a business class flight to a press conference in Switzerland count as a ‘gift’? Does dinner with a PR, who happens to look after several brands or clients relevant to our titles?
I think it’s unavoidable for journalists to be influenced by gifts. If a writer is sent, for example, a bottle of expensive perfume, then that brand will be at the forefront of their mind the next time a feature about perfume comes up and will almost certainly be featured. This is unescapable, and shows that from a PR point of view, gifting works.
The only saving grace for myself is that, contrary to Mr. Orwell’s words of warning, lifestyle journalism isn’t exactly cutthroat. I’m not breaking earth-shattering news stories. Generally I’m writing about new hotels or luxury watches, where there really is only one story to tell: these things are good, and here’s why. If I’d stayed for a free night at a hotel and it was terrible, I wouldn’t write about how terrible it was – I just wouldn’t write about it at all.
An example of a different area of journalism where expensive gifts are regular occurrences is in videogames, where the difference between bad and good reviews is more pronounced. The company Ubisoft made bad headlines in 2014 when attendees of a press conference about its new game were gifted expensive Nexus 7 tablets – ostensibly to show off the game’s use of a ‘second screen,’ but really just a pricey way of guaranteeing some positive coverage. George Orwell wouldn’t have been impressed.
“NO” says Aby Sam Thomas, Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East
“It falls upon us as journalists to ensure that the work we do is never swayed by the gifts that we receive”
If I take the question in its literal sense, then I can confidently say that accepting gifts does not affect the integrity of journalism. A gift is, after all, just an expression of goodwill from one to another, and it shouldn’t really affect either of the parties’ professional lives. We say ‘thank you,’ they say ‘you’re welcome,’ and that’s about it.
However, if the gift is being offered to the journalist as some kind of bribe, then that’s obviously a strict no-no—it thus falls upon us as journalists to ensure that the work we do is never swayed by the gifts that we receive. Of course, taking on such a stand will almost certainly reduce the number of freebies we get in the future—but then again, we are not in the business of news for the gifts, are we? And so, I don’t really think accepting press gifts affects the integrity of journalism—unless, of course, we, as journalists, actually allow it to do so.
Given this scenario, it’s easy to see why media organisations often impose a blanket ban on their journalists accepting gifts of any kind—it may not be the most elegant solution, but it does allow us to avoid ever having to worry about such quandaries in the workplace.
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