Gifts, Free Travel and Other Perks

Giving or receiving of gifts by journalists can be fraught with complications, both journalistic and cultural.

Some journalists see little trouble with it. They believe they can receive a gift and still cover a story honestly. They also note that in some countries, gift giving is a routine practice, and some journalists depend on these gifts for their livelihood. In addition, they recognize that many freelancers lack the ability to pay for reporting trips; their counsel in such cases is for the journalist to disclose clearly, within the story or video piece, what perks she received.

Other journalists, however, consider getting and giving gifts anathema to the profession. They argue that even if a reporter’s coverage is unbiased, the fact that he received a gift takes away from his credibility. And how are outside observers going to know the story is, in fact, unbiased if it’s known that a journalist took a gift or money?

These considerations don’t apply only to “impartial” news organizations. Even for “point-of-view” journalists, giving and receiving gifts can be viewed as a violation of professionalism.

Sometimes special questions arise over free tickets to plays, sports events or movies. Many journalists will accept these solely for the purpose of reviewing or covering the events. News outlets often specify, however, that the tickets are for the journalists only, not their families or friends.

Some journalists will also accept small trinkets like caps or pens. Many organizations set a monetary limit for such gifts, like $20 or $25. Beyond that, they feel, gifts must be returned or given to charity.

Occasionally, reporters on assignment in another culture may have gifts forced upon them as a gesture of local “hospitality.” It is important to distinguish genuine hospitality from an attempt to compromise a journalist’s integrity. Journalists who are wary of gifts, but do not want to offend their hosts, sometimes give the gifts to charity later or send a check after departure as reimbursement.

Some news companies receive discounts for their employees from computer companies, railroads, etc. Often they choose to accept them only if they are offered to other companies, not just news outlets.

Often journalists want to give small gifts to people they have interviewed, particularly people or children caught up in disasters or war. These might include food or a small toy. Most news organizations have no problems with such simple human courtesies.

However, these journalists are usually careful not to give anything to political activists or others involved in controversial situations. Such gifts can make the journalist appear to be supporting their side.

Other perspectives include the belief that journalists can accept compensation for the costs of getting to a news conference, or that they can accept a gift so as not to offend the giver but should then donate it to charity.

In countries where journalists are paid irregularly, or not at all, governments or companies may routinely give gifts to journalists. Sometimes the money is used to purchase positive coverage and creates serious ethical problems. At the same time, such gifts may be essential to a journalist’s livelihood. Given this situation, the answer for an ethical journalist may be to disclose that a gift was received and still cover the subject fairly. Also, some believe it is more acceptable for financially distressed journalists to take a gift given to everyone covering a news conference than a gift given secretly and individually in return for a certain kind of coverage.

The main author of this section is Thomas Kent.

Additional resources
Journalism ethics don’t (always) require us to be assholes, Steve Buttry