Tag Archives: ethics

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.

Donald Trump and journalist ethics

I had a weird media training session yesterday. Not that the people involved were weird, they were perfectly normal and pleasant. The weird thing was that part of my brief is to tell people how the press works (you won’t find that a surprise).

And part of this is ethics, including the bit that says you don’t run a story unless you have two independent and reliable sources corroborating it. That’s fundamental to the way I’ve always operated.

Yesterday, however, was different. Yesterday things had changed. Because Donald Trump.

Buzzfeed and ethics

To put it another way: Buzzfeed had published a complete dossier on Donald Trump, who is – whatever you think of him – president elect of the USA. It contained sexual and financial allegations that I’m not going to repeat.

And the reason I’m not going to repeat them is that they are, by Buzzfeed’s admission, completely unverified. It even added that they may be unverifiable. Ever.

The idea, the organisation said, was to allow Americans (as if it hadn’t known the story would go worldwide) to make up their own minds.

So let’s get this straight: someone has written a dossier on a public figure, they’ve sent it in or it’s been leaked to a publisher and that publisher, instead of putting it through any scrutiny, has put it into the public domain without a shred of evidence other than the document itself. The idea that people will make up their minds based on an impartial assessment is difficult to take; my own belief is that they will believe whatever reinforces their original opinion of the man (that’s an instinct rather than something for which I have any research).

What next?

I could write a dossier now. It could say Theresa May shouldn’t be leader of the Conservative Party because she is secretly married to Jeremy Corbyn. It’s rubbish of course, but would Buzzfeed publish it?

Suppose it did. Very few people would believe it and if they were asked, of course both parties would rubbish the reports. Can you be sure, though, that there would be no wagging tongues – nobody at all would turn around and say there’s no smoke without fire, something must be going on, or other cliches – not because the idea is credible but because it suggests politicians are “up to something”?

I have no idea whether or not Donald Trump did any of those things in the unsubstantiated dossier. I can’t stand the man or what he stands for and I wish he would go away (file under “not going to happen”). I get that he has used fake news often enough himself, claiming Obama founded Isis (a ridiculous and outright lie) and that the same president was born in Kenya.

But journalists are supposed to be more diligent. Nobody deserves to have unsubstantiated muck thrown at them so people can make up their own minds. Wednesday and yesterday were bad days for Donald Trump; they weren’t that great for journalism either.