The topic of freebies has been something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. It’s tempting, particularly when starting out as a journalist, to see the offers of travel and the occasional gift as part of the benefit of the job. But it’s important to realise that one of the most important assets you have is reputation. And establishing and documenting your code of ethics is important for protecting that reputation.
I was reading this story about car makers modifying review cars provided to journalists and the following quote stood out to me.A good review is worth a lot. Some marketers value a page of mainly positive editorial as worth 2½ to three times as much as a page of advertising. That helps explain why companies fly journalists around and do their best to wrap them in cotton wool. (Some journalists think it’s because they are important and/or respected. Sad, sad souls.)
In case you missed it there are two key things
- Good editorial is more valuable than advertising
- Vendors and public relations people treat journalists well, at least partly, because happy writers may be more likely to write favourable copy
That means journalists need to keep their eye on what’s actually going on.
Last year, I was flown to Japan by a printer manufacturer to visit an R&D facility and meet with senior management. The value of that trip, for me, wasn’t the frequent flyer miles. The value came from the contacts I made and the increased product knowledge. Sure, some of that information could have been imparted by sending me a bunch of documentation. But the opportunity to speak with the people involved in the product development directly could never have been translated to paper.
As a freelance journalist, if you make the decision to accept a trip, then you need to make it clear to readers that when you write about the trip that you flew courtesy of the subject.
With gifts – it’s tougher. It would be easy to say “no gifts” but the reality is that something like a pen, cap or t-shirt isn’t likely to influence a writer. So where do you draw the line?
Fellow writer Renai LeMay is the editor of Delimiter. He recently declined the offer of a free tablet computer or smartphone at a product launch. Journalists in attendance (I wasn’t at the event) were offered a choice between the devices. He has a policy for his company of accepting gifts with a value in excess of $200.
Whether you agree with LeMay’s policy, what’s important to note is that LeMay has at least thought about it and has a policy.
I’d probably go a little further. I’d suggest that journalists should all
- Set a limit for the value of gifts
- Keep a register of gifts received
- Declare all gifts and sponsored travel
What do you do about gifts and trips? Do you have a policy? Let us know in the comments.