Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The problem with perks

Meryl Gottlieb

When writing about a specific subject such as music, food or film, those you write about may often try to sway your feelings about them in order for a more favorable write-up on their behalf. All journalists face the major issue of conflicts of interest. No matter what subject a reporter writes about, many internal factors can influence their writing. A person’s political views can clearly hinder the way he or she reports on the latest happenings of Congress. Different religious beliefs will influence the way someone covers an LGBT rally. Family ties to a certain cause or person impact the final story. But what about the external factors brought on to purposefully influence the reporter’s piece? What about the external factors critics must navigate in order to correctly dictate their thoughts on their subject?

Courtesy of Marc van de Griendt via www.ethics.org.au
Only accept gifts on your birthday or during the holidays

What may seem like a nice way to repay a writer for their coverage of a certain album, film or restaurant can actually be a marketing tool in disguise. Receiving free accommodations, food, albums, films and essentially any gifts will influence the end result of a writer’s story. They may feel more inclined to try to make the readers want to attend said restaurant or hotel or buy said album or film because the contact treated the writer well and gave him or her a free item or two.

If Linda Holmes of NPR’s Monkey See blog was paid or bribed for more glamorous reviews of certain films or television shows, then how could anyone trust her opinion? Almost every word of the review would be tainted with the gift she accepted. Anything she claimed to be good about a film or show would be called into question as to whether it truly is good or if she is just saying that to please the people who paid her. On the opposite end, is what she said bad because it truly is bad or because someone paid her to like something else better? Luckily, she’s a great journalist and her commentary is sharp, accurate and reliable.

The issue with gift-receiving was a point Robert Richards continually made in his article, "Bottled prose: The ethical paradox of the wine press," as he stressed how gifts and extra benefits can cloud the minds of the critic.

“Too often reporters and columnists get swallowed by the elaborate efforts made by wineries to court them, including deluxe accommodations at winery guest houses, access to breathtaking vineyard views, dazzling winemaker dinners, bottomless pours from the finest work product and a healthy sampling of the latest vintage to take home and remember,” Richards wrote. “The reporting itself naturally should become suspect under such conditions.”

Yet, there are a few instances in which free gifts are OK. As Derk Richardson discusses in "Love those perks! Critics sound off on the ethics of music journalism," promotional CDs may be a necessary evil that comes with the task of reviewing albums. Many journalists cannot always afford to buy the album, screen the film, see the play or purchase the food that they are reviewing. And in some instances, gifts can be given and not influence the writer.

“I always like to remember what Jesse Unruh…said about lobbyists in Sacramento: ‘If you can’t eat their food, drink their drinks and vote against 'em the next day, you have no business being here,’” said Joel Selvin in Richardson’s article.

Conflicts are not just external

Conflicts of interest do not only occur when a reporter accepts a gift from a source. A common conflict of interest arises when a reporter writes about a topic he or she is somehow connected to or involved in or even when a reporter stops writing objectively and becomes involved in the story — such was the case with Anna Song and her involvement in the case of the two missing girls in Oregon City.

A more recent example of this can be found in ABC’s "Scandal." James (Dan Bucatinsky) is a political journalist whose longtime partner is the president’s chief of staff, Cyrus (Jeff Perry). 

“James, honey, this makes you the enemy. We’ll be enemies all day and then we’ll have to forget about it every night,” Cyrus says to James, after realizing James plans on returning to work as a White House correspondent. 

During press conferences, personal banter is thrown around between the two as other journalists try to learn answers. James even writes a story or two based on the conversations he has with Cyrus at home, leading to an angry partner and a furious member of Cyrus’ political party. An important story arc in season two followed Cyrus hiding an important secret about the past presidential election, while James was following a lead about the same story himself. James was then furious at Cyrus for never divulging all of the information, while at the same time, Cyrus was angry at James for following the story in the first place. James is too closely tied to the affairs of the White House and should not be reporting on politics at all as long as Cyrus is as involved as he is. This kind of relationship hinders the capability for the objective truth to be portrayed.  

“How many stories of the century do you want me to give up?” James asks as he and Cyrus enter into another argument over whether or not he should have interviewed the first lady. 

Overall, be an ethical reporter. Don't accept a gift you wouldn't want to tell your editors or readers about. Don't write about a subject you have a connection to in any way, shape or form. Always remember that the primary goal of any type of journalist is to tell the truth and maintain public trust. Do something to compromise that and your job could be on the line.

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