Tuesday, September 22, 2015

One-Size-Fits-All Ethics

Spenser Dopp

I can certainly see why it might be a problem for some journalists to accept gifts from the people or groups that they cover in their work.  I can also see why it might not be a problem for some journalists, such as Neva Chonin.

Chonin, who wrote as a music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, admits to being “wined and dined” by publicists. She says that she allows herself to be wined and dined and then goes on to write whatever she was going to write, anyway. If what Chonin says is true, then her integrity is not compromised by gifts from the subjects of her stories. That being the case, who can rightly say that it is a violation of ethical principles for Neva Chonin to accept these gifts?

In 2004 Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher advised journalists against accepting any gifts from the subjects of their stories. “Don’t accept anything from people you cover.” This does seem to be a sound principle, but strikes me as similar to the saying “always treat every gun as if it is loaded.” Again, this is sound advice, but is it really necessary to follow all the time? If I know for a fact that a gun is not loaded, or that my judgment will not be swayed by a complementary bottle of wine, what does anyone stand to gain from me pretending otherwise? If a music critic like Neva Chonin can enjoy a friendly meal with a publicist and then write an unbiased piece about the artist(s), why should she refuse the dinner invitation?

Credit: theliberaloc.com
California politician Jesse Unruh said of lobbyists, “If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, take their money and then vote against them you've got no business being up here." Unruh recognized the distinction between receiving gifts and agreeing to be bribed. Just as people should not elect representatives who would vote based on attempts at bribery, news organizations should not hire journalists who would allow gifts or special treatment to influence their work. If editors trust the journalists working under them to maintain their integrity and independence, then a free meal or other gift should not be considered unethical. After all, it is not unethical simply to receive gifts. It is unethical to exchange favors for gifts.

Why, then, do we assume corruption every time a journalist innocently accepts a perk of the job? We all like free stuff. Is it fair for us to demand that journalists turn down free stuff simply because they might be the type of journalists who allow free stuff to influence their work? According to the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, yes, it is fair. Journalists are urged to "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived." So because some journalists cannot be objective, all journalists are forbidden to enjoy professional perks?

It seems to me that we could benefit from handling conflicts of interest on a case-by-case basis, rather than adhering to zero-tolerance policies that assume all journalists are so easily swayed. Just because a bottle of wine is free does not mean that the wine tastes any different to a wine critic. If a journalist unfailingly makes judgments based only on the appropriate and relevant facts, no amount of gifts will change those facts or the way they are reported.

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