Journalists should go to extraordinary lengths to protect our integrity. But when a courtesy or kindness doesn’t threaten our integrity, we should say “thank you.”
Jason Plotkin, an extraordinary (Emmy-winning) visual journalist for the York Daily Record, blogged recently about a marine giving him his “Cover” (“The Army wears hats. The Marines wear Covers,” the marine explained).
Jason wrote about all the gifts he had given away over the years, or passed on to a YDR charity auction, guided by the ethical imperative to maintain independence from sources. His colleague, Buffy Andrews, called the dilemma to my attention, asking what I thought.
— Buffy Andrews (@Buffyandrews) February 15, 2013
Here’s what I think: We should absolutely – and insistently, if necessary – politely refuse gifts of significant value that could threaten our integrity, if only by appearance. But journalists don’t have to be assholes. Our jobs too often force us to annoy – asking difficult questions, refusing pleas not to publish embarrassing information, intruding on grief and other private situations. I defend (and have practiced) all of those actions and many other unpopular things journalists need to do. But we don’t have to insult people who are being kind in ways that don’t threaten our integrity.
If the financial value of the gift is significant or if it represents a possible effort to influence the journalist’s work, you need to insist on returning the gift or disclose that you will donate it to charity. But if the gift has little value beyond the kindness, I believe it’s sufficient to disclose it to editors (as Jason did) and perhaps to readers as well (as Jason did).
You can’t win every fight with sources over the check for a meal. I won most of them (if you mention your ethics code and your expense account, they usually give in). But I remember losing a fight with Dan Offenburger when he was the leader of the local development agency in Shenandoah, Iowa, and I was in town working on a story. The check just never arrived. Dan got up at some point to go to the restroom and paid it (my back was to the cash register or I might have had a shot at intervening). When I insisted on paying, he joked that my money was no good there. If it had been a lavish dinner, I’d have insisted that Dan not place me in an awkward position, but this was a lunch at a small-town café, costing less than $10. The awkward position would have been to put up more than a mild protest. I played the ethics-code card (Dan’s brother, Chuck, is a longtime journalist, so I knew he understood). Dan said he knew I couldn’t be bought for a cheap lunch and that I was way more honest than a certain editor whose ethics were, in fact, questionable. It was time for me to give in gracefully. I insisted on covering the tip (he said he’d paid that, too, but I tossed a $5 bill on the table to make it a bigger tip) and I said next time was on me, and Dan agreed. Sadly, he died before the “next time,” but I don’t think the free lunch tainted my coverage of his death. (I should note here that Chuck Offenburger is a longtime friend who gave me my first job in journalism back in 1971. That probably represented more of a conflict in covering an issue that involved Dan than the lunch did, and I disclosed that to my editors.)
On other occasions, I covered stories that included interviews in people’s homes and led to invitations to stay for dinner. The dinner was actually a continuation of the interview, invariably providing helpful quotes and color for my stories. How do you pay for that? There is no check to pick up. And dropping a $20 or $50 bill on the table would be an insult (and not just because it was underpayment for hospitality that defied value). I helped once with the dishes. Once I was able to take the people out for ice cream later in the evening. A couple times I sent flowers the next day.
When I was an agriculture reporter in Kansas City, I went along on the annual Kansas Wheat Tour, a survey of winter wheat fields across the state by farmers, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, ag group leaders and journalists, assessing the state of the crop. I was driving with a retired Extension agent named Virgil Carlson, who taught me a lot (all of which I’ve since forgotten) about how to assess the quality of a wheat crop. Somewhere north of Hugoton, which is in the southwest corner of Kansas, the clutch went out on my aging Subaru. We got a tow back into Hugoton and amazingly, we found a place that repaired foreign cars, but my car wouldn’t be ready until Friday (this was Tuesday, I think). Someone came from Garden City, where we were staying that night, and gave us a ride to catch up with the group.
I was trying to figure out how I’d get back to Hugoton Friday to pick up my car. Maybe Mimi could come from Kansas City to Wichita, where the tour would end on Thursday, and drive me to Hugoton and then we’d drive home in separate cars. But that would be a pain. And the boys had school. I could rent a car in Wichita, but I was pretty sure I couldn’t get a one-way rental to Hugoton, and, if I did, the bill would be a whopper (perhaps more than the room I had on my credit card). I was thinking that if any bus service ran to Hugoton, that might be my best solution. But I wasn’t sure I could get there directly from Wichita, or even whether buses served Hugoton (we’d been writing stories about cutbacks in rural bus service).
I didn’t need to worry. Virgil mentioned my dilemma to a rancher named Rod Bentley, who would be driving home to western Kansas after the tour. Hugoton was an hour or so out of his way, but Rod offered me a ride. His kindness saved me time, money and inconvenience of great value. I wasn’t writing specifically about him, but I was writing about his industries (wheat and cattle). For that evening, we were not a rancher and a journalist, but a young guy who should take better care of his vehicles and an older gentleman (alas, probably about my age now) who showed kindness without judgment.
Of course, I’d have insisted on paying for the gas if I’d had a chance, but Rod had a full tank to start and we never stopped for gas. I bought dinner, but that seemed inadequate. I wasn’t going to insult Rod by offering him money. When I got back to Kansas City, I found a nice coffee-table book reflecting an interest of Rod’s (it was a long enough ride we both learned a lot about each other). I shipped it off to him with a thank-you note. That didn’t make us even, but I think my integrity emerged unscathed.
Nearly a decade later, I was a religion reporter for the Des Moines Register and accompanied a mission trip to Venezuela. The Des Moines group spent much of the week providing medical and dental care in the impoverished mountainside barrio of El Paují. With the help of interpreters, I interviewed lots of the adults and children of El Paují as they came to the school where the missionaries set up the clinic and led worship services in the street out front.
I came bearing gifts: RAGBRAI hats and t-shirts for the adults I interviewed and lots of candy for the children (you give one child a piece of candy and soon you’re feeding a crowd; I quickly learned, “no más.”). At the closing service before returning to Iowa, the villagers gave me a tiny handmade clay house, resembling those of El Paují. Maybe some purists would have turned that gift down as something that would compromise their integrity. Maybe it was a fair trade for all my candy and Register swag. Didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to be an ano. I smiled, accepted the gift and said, “Gracias.”
Here’s my ethics rule for small gifts and acts of kindness that don’t threaten a journalist’s integrity: Say thank you. Return the kindness in some way if you can. And don’t be an asshole.
My friend John Robinson gave excellent answers to Buffy’s question – shorter than mine and more eloquent:
— John Robinson (@johnrobinson) February 15, 2013
— John Robinson (@johnrobinson) February 15, 2013
Keep the Cover, Jason. Wear it with pride and gratitude. Or just display it at your desk.