Fred Brown on Gifts and Political Involvement

“Refuse” may be a little harsh; “decline” suggests a more polite approach to avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest. This is the starting point for many employers’ codes of ethics, and those codes are more specific and detailed about what news employees can and can’t do. Around the middle of the last century, people in news management became concerned that promoters and activists sought to win over reporters with everything from free bourbon to wheels of cheese. Eventually, ethical newsroom managers sought to codify rules to discourage this sort of thing.

When “refusing” (or “declining”) proffered perquisites, don’t be rude or snotty about it; just say politely that, as a responsible journalist, you are expected to be impartial and not beholden in any way to the people you cover. One example of how far we are removed from the freebie customs of the past is that today, if you’re going to follow a presidential contender across country, your news organization is going to have to pay the equivalent of a first-class fare.

And, speaking of politics, ethical journalists are expected to give up some things that every other citizen is entitled to do. Journalists may have some unique privileges, such as shield laws, but most news organizations discourage their employees – especially those who appear on air or in print – from running for public office. Nor should they participate in protest marches or advocacy demonstrations. The New York Times has a very strict policy about this, introduced with this unequivocal statement:  “Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics.” Yes, you can vote, but avoid any more partisan activity that might raise questions about your professional impartiality. In other words, don’t take sides on an issue you’re covering. Even opinion journalists, who are expected to proclaim what’s best for the future of humanity, are told they shouldn’t actively  work on campaigns.

Fred Brown of the Society’s Ethics Committee