Balancing Editorial Integrity With Lovely Free Food

Posted on July 5, 2015 by Joe B

foodAt one of the first community newspapers I worked at, we used to try and send the summer interns on assignments where they were likely to score free food.

While any of us appreciated any possibility of free treats, we did feel some responsibility for the little guys/gals, who sometimes were college students working for little or nothing. If they could encounter anything from a gratis lunch to someone’s birthday cake, it can help their household budget and give them good training in the long-practiced, under-appreciated art/skill of scavenging.

The next paper I worked at wasn’t that way at all, and had a set of newsroom ethics thicker than their Thanksgiving edition. They boiled down to “say no to everything, and repeat if needed.” People had to pay their way everywhere, even to games and concerts for review purposes, and any unsolicited gifts went into a pile for a semi-annual “freebie sale” that benefited a local charity.

Management claimed it was great for the integrity of the organization and showed that the news staff treated everyone equally and isn’t influenced.

But once I switched to Marketing, their attitude was more “heaven helps those who help themselves,” and quid pro quo/in-kind donations were the name of the game. I’ve never eaten so well.

Now, as a freelance writer, I’ve noticed that everyone is on their own as far as how to handle freebies. Since so many of us are independent contractors, we must craft our own ethics policies.

Those of us who blog and have a decent audience may have already begun to explore these advertorial gray areas, where companies offer free products with the expectation of coverage – they rarely say “we’d LOVE for you to write something nice” but it’s certainly implied, or at least practiced.

Those of us lucky enough to write travel/destination stories also may encounter that lovely item known as the ‘junket,’ such as a free trip somewhere, also with the expectation of non-negative coverage. It can take various forms, from lodging to an entire itinerary.

So what kind of guidance is there for freelance writers wondering when to politely decline or belly up to the free buffet?

  • Check with professional writer associations. The Society of Professional Journalists has a detailed ethics policy for a freelance journalist that mirrors most modern newsrooms – mostly refuse when possible. Travel writer associations may have other guidelines, such as being fine with accepting a free night stay from a tourism organization for promotional purposes, but not being fine with soliciting anything in exchange for positive coverage.
  •  Look to the government. Though you wouldn’t believe it looking at local and national headlines, elected officials do have laws to follow about what to accept, what to accept and publicly disclose, and what to decline. For Congress, they and their staff are actually allowed to accept free items, usually with a small cap of $25 or less. One aide told me “if he could be bought off for a $5 latte, things are in bad shape.”

Writer Bio: Joe B is a longtime writer who once considered burning his SPJ card, especially if a  lifetime of free burgers was somehow involved. 


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