In an internship program I did this summer, me and 10 other young journalists were sitting in a classroom at the University of Missouri and discussing when it is ok to take a free item as a reporter.
We went back and forth with the sports editor of The Columbia Missourian, Greg Bowers, about whether it was ok or not ok to take something.
The question he posed was if you are given a free t-shirt that is advertising the home team while you were in the press box, would you take it?
Many of us said we would. Bowers then posed a follow-up question, asking us if we thought the item was given to influence how we report on that specific team.
We then froze, thinking of how to respond. The most common response: "It's just a t-shirt, it's not that big of a deal."
Bowers' reply was that it didn't matter what it was, if someone sees you wearing that shirt, they are going to assume that you are a fan of that team. And if you're a fan of that team, are you really covering them fairly?
He also said that if someone happen to see you walk out of the press box with that shirt, are people going to question are you covering the team independently if you are receiving gifts.
After several minutes of deliberating, the final consensus was to not take anything that would question us as reporters. Unfortunately, that is a hard judgement call.
While we try to be transparent and independent, crossing that line can be tempting at times.
This scenario may not be directly tied to a conflict of interest, but it has the same idea behind it. We were also told by this editor that if a source takes us out to dinner for whatever reason, that we pay for ourselves because that covers us if the source is trying to persuade us to be impartial.
In the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics, under the Act Independently section of its code of ethics, there are a couple of points that specifically tell us to not accept gifts, no matter how big or small.
As journalists, we have a duty to tell the truth and tell the story how it is. We are not to cut corners or leave out things as we have discussed in class with the case study's. Part of cutting corners is receiving anything in turn for a fabricated story.
Like the Common Ethical Issues in Public Relations article says, every PR firm or media outlet will have conflicts of interest forbidden in its code of ethics so the trick to not falling into that temptation.
RTDNA has guidelines of how to avoid conflicts of interest. While it is part of our job to be direct about our news, sometimes it can be difficult to remember the ethics of what you're doing if you get too involved in a story. If you're questioning a possible situation of conflict of interest, then you should probably just avoid it.