Christmas means many things to many people, but the one common denominator is gift-giving and, of course, receiving. Journalists, however, have to be careful about accepting gifts.
Most media companies have policies detailing what is and isn't acceptable, even to the point of who should pay for the coffee at a meeting. Here is a sampling of some of the policies:
The New York Times: "Routine refreshments at an event like a news conference are acceptable, but a staff member should not attend recurring breakfast or lunch meetings unless our company pays for the journalist's meals. Whether the setting is an exclusive club or a service lodge's weekly luncheon, we should pay our way."
Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch: "News employees may not accept gifts or services of more than nominal value from news sources and contacts, public relations and advertising firms, or event sponsors."
The Chicago Tribune: "Staff should not accept free tickets to an event for personal enjoyment, nor 'special offers' aimed at members of the news media. No merchandise, cash, services or anything else of value should be solicited. Unsolicited merchandise whose value exceeds that of a key chain will be donated to charity by the newspaper."
Whether it be concert tickets, sample products, or complimentary services, some gifts may give the perception that coverage can be or is being influenced. While gifts are standard procedure in just about every other industry, they can be construed as bribes when given to a journalist.
Most news organizations permit gifts of small monetary value, say under $15, as a thank you. But the journalist must be comfortable with the intent of the gift. For example, if the gift is a box of candy or a tin of cookies from a reader excited about a great story on her grandson's baseball team, that is usually accepted, appreciated and shared among the staff. However, if the gift is four concert tickets to a sold-out show, given to the reviewer, these should be returned immediately.
And there are times that gifts or samples are given and politely refusing and returning is not an option. Over the years I have received hundreds of sample products, particularly during my tenure as a features editor at a daily newspaper. I received just about everything imaginable, from samples of new food products and books to review, to Victoria's Secret lingerie, a crate of Vidalia onions and a fifth of Jack Daniels.
When it's unrealistic to refuse or return items, journalists go above and beyond to avoid the appearance of inpropriety. I used to donate the food items to the food pantry, clothing to the Salvation Army, and books to the local library for them to sell at the annual book fair. As for the other items, such as the bottle of Jack, wine, toys, CDs, videos and electronic gadgets, I would collect them for a period of time and we would raffle or auction the items to the newspaper staff, with the cash donated to charity.
So what is the best gift you can give to a journalist who writes a great story or takes a fabulous photo? A thank you note or email, phone call or voicemail are very much appreciated. As a matter of fact, I have known journalists to keep those indefinitely and reference them when they need a lift.
Journalists also believe in the emotional uplifting power of chocolate and cookies. Just like Santa on Christmas Eve, journalists rarely leave a cookie or candy untouched.
If I were the publisher…
Have you ever thought to yourself, "If I ran the Pleasanton Weekly, I would do things differently?" I would like to hear your ideas.
And, as always, I love to get questions and comments.