gifts, journalists

Giving gifts to journalists – our ethics

Sometimes when I’m media training I’m asked about giving gifts to journalists. This is something that’s changed over the years and, I believe, it’s better now. The simplest advice is not to do so.

In the late eighties when I started as a tech journalist, there wasn’t a year without a case of wine or something turning up at the office for Christmas, usually from the marketing department of a company about which we’d written regularly. There was no linkage in our minds between this and the coverage.

There were also more overt gifts. One editor I knew rarely paid for his own laptop computer. He explained that a few PR people and he regularly planned that he’d be the last person to review a unit, and by the time it had been pulled apart that many times it wasn’t cost-effective to retrieve it. Hence, free laptops for years.

There are exceptions of course. Food and drink journalists can’t reasonably write about their field without tasting, and expecting them to send back the remainder of a bottle of beer would be absurd.

The tech-based generosity all came to a halt a couple of decades later. First, the financial crash happened. Second, a lot of marketing departments did some thinking.

Are you drinking someone’s job?

Two things happened. It started to occur to people on both sides of the fence that if money was being spent on journalists then it wasn’t going on the core business. When people were losing their livelihoods all over the place, it was less comfortable when someone biked a bottle of bubbly or something over.

Second, during the late 1990s the Internet became more popular. It had always been known that the UK and the US had different cultures when it came to “freebies” (they were much more strict than us). Being in closer contact with each other held us in the UK up to the light and we could see how this looked to other people.

That said, there may be times when you want to give someone a little thank you. Here’s something that happened to me only a couple of weeks ago.

Say it with as little money as possible

I was interviewing someone and we were getting on well. He was interesting and I warmed to his subject. He told me there was a book I’d really enjoy, and asked for my email address. I gave it, politely, expecting information on the book.

When I checked, he’d sent me the audiobook. Now, Audible.com has a promotion so that you can send someone a copy of your favourite book free of charge, I believe (it’s obviously promotional but you do get the whole book).

I found I had a gift that was: a) personal and thoughtful, because it was a result of an actual conversation, and also b) free to the sender.

Meanwhile my wife works in the public sector; their stipulations, if someone insists on giving them something, are that it has to be declared if it’s worth over a fiver and unless it’s perishable, they tend to put it into a prize draw for their nominated charity anyway.

On the “perishable” theme, when someone gave me some help with a contract once and wouldn’t accept money, I sent a box of cookies. I had to query non-delivery so the company sent out another couple of boxes to be certain. By the time the fourth box had arrived my contract friend was begging for them to stop.

In fact the more I think about it, the more I think “just a really good story thanks” is about right for most journalists I know.

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