About 250 Canadian journalists, bloggers, and others took freebies including gift "swag" bags and food from Ikea at an "exclusive party" Nov. 26, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported. (CBC noted that its journalists didn't attend the event, which would have violated its ethical standards.)
Jounalism professor Nick Russell, whom iMediaEthics interviewed last year for a report on his book Morals and the Media: Ethics in Canadian Journalism, reminded the CBC that such actions violate the Canadian Association of Journalists' guidelines against accepting free anything. The guidelines include:
"We do not accept the free or reduced-rate use of valuable goods or services offered because of our position…. We do not solicit gifts or favours for personal use, and should promptly return unsolicited gifts of more than nominal value. If it is impractical to return the gift, we will give it to an appropriate charity."
iMediaEthics asked The Canadian Assocation of Journalists' president Hugo Rodrigues about this event. He told iMediaEthics by email:
"The CAJ would encourage all newsrooms to look at their own guidelines and policies when it comes to the ethical conduct of their employees and weigh those against what is actually done in practice. The CAJ's guidelines and principles, meant to serve as best-practice documents, were developed based on some of the best already in use in newsrooms.
"As these documents aren't enforcement tools they don't forbid, however they do strongly encourage transparency and accountability from all journalists. It may not always be appropriate or necessary to be transparent about receiving a bottle of water or some finger food, but if the decision to cover a particular event is driven by the reward of the hospitality shown to journalists, or that very reward could be seen to influence the tone of coverage, these best practices call upon journalists and their newsrooms to be transparent and tell their audiences how it is the content came into existence.
"The CAJ also encourages this critical look at practice versus policy occur across all editorial departments, not just for those journalists covering news."
Russell, who was skeptical that there are 250 "media people in Winnipeg," commented that about such freebies, "It looks to the public as if the journalists are just what they're made out to be in the old movies — freeloaders, drunks." He added:
"In the old days, we used to think it's a question of bribery — we're corrupting the press by doing this. It's nothing that serious, but what Ikea is trying to do is make friends, to socialize the media so that they all feel warm and cuddly about Ikea, and that's not healthy.
"The media have to stand back and say, 'Thank you, I appreciate it, but we're not going to be there.'"
Winnipeg journalism instructor Duncan McMonagle commented that participating journalists must now disclose the gifts, telling the CBC that "If you're dumb enough to go to Ikea and take a freebie from them and then go and pretend that you're reporting on them in a disinterested way, you're not that smart."
In turn, Canada.com called out CBC for its report, quoting criticism of Ikea, writing that "Freebies are presumably a staple of any press event thrown by the CBC."
Responding to Canada.com's criticism, CBC's Chuck Thompson told iMediaEthics by email that "we thought the story was news worthy because of the unusual nature of the discount being offered for media and not the public at large. This is something substantially different compared to the refreshments offered at our winter media event."
Bloggers on the Event
Canada.com pointed to two blogs, Save Money in Winnipeg and Peg City Lovely, that both featured blogposts on the event. According to Peg City Lovely, the "full fledged media event." was a "Private Viewing Party." In tweets, Peg City Lovely's Natalie noted there was "wine and fancy hors d'oeurves" as well as a "swag bag."
Blogger Erica Glasier posted a photo of the "swag bag" and seemed to celebrate the money Ikea lavished on writers in general and, more specifically, bloggers in a fawning post that included:
"I’m very impressed with the level of attention to the blogging community IKEA’s PR is paying. And I do mean paying. The swag bag, handed out to each exhausted shopper as they departed, was packed with an appealing palette of treasure (including delicious chocolates, thoughtful napkins to deal with the aftermath, tealights & pretty holders, and full foamy-coffee paraphernalia. And like a whole lamp and a lightbulb).
"Does the actual media get a payday like this all the time? Refocusing career on retail journalism!"
Glasier, who noted she's not a journalist but a former "contract Social Media Producer in 2010-2011" for CBC, told iMediaEthics by email that IKEA didn't require she blog in exchange for attending but that IKEA did provide photos to help those covering the night.
"They supplied a USB stick with images of the store. Their social media staff contacted bloggers to ask permission in advance to use original photography we might post on our own blogs on IKEA's Facebook page, but they didn't suggest we had to provide any coverage, just enjoy the event.
"It's naïve, I'm sure, but I didn't think of the swag so much as intended to influence my coverage as it was a reward for vocal, lifelong fandom. Of course that's not the case—everyone got the same thing, no matter what their level of IKEA appreciation beforehand—but it felt like wonderful treatment for being a brand fan."
iMediaEthics asked Glasier how she normally handles disclosures of gifts and any ethics standards she follows for her blog. While admitting such freebies haven't "happened before," Glasier said her practice would be to be upfront with her readers. "I'm writing from the perspective of a person blogging, so my 'readers' are in on the joke with me—the joke being that anyone would think me influential enough to give swag to in the first place!" she explained. She added that she felt she was somehow free from the perception of taint because "I write a personal blog from my own perspective" and not for a "brand or news organization."
Glasier characterized the event as a "new media event" and noted that while, as a blogger she can attend the event, the rules are different for journalists. "This is the first event I've been to that had honest-to-God swag," she said. "I wouldn't go to a media event just for freebies, though—I have a particular interest in & affection for IKEA, so I'm a good fit for blogger outreach. Besides loving the brand, I also write about local marketing, so it's a particularly good fit—I'd be writing about IKEA from either perspective anyway."
Glasier added that:
"The article I wrote about the experience on my blog wasn't shared by IKEA to my knowledge, because I did joke about the swag & its place influencing journalism. I wrote that before CBC's article was posted; it was an obvious facet of the event. I wasn't criticizing IKEA, but I can see that among the praise for bringing accessible interior design to Winnipeg, I was also addressing swag issues they might prefer to ignore. That's the risk you take when you work with bloggers.
"I joked: 'Does the actual media get a payday like this all the time? Refocusing career on retail journalism!'
"Journalists bound by codes of ethics, unions, and commitment to impartiality on behalf of their news organizations who were invited to the event should, in my opinion, have attended to report but not taken advantage of the free food, wine, or shopping discounts. The event was newsworthy.
"In my opinion it was a 'new media event' designed for blogger outreach-generated PR. I certainly don't think journalists from news organizations should have taken freebies or discounts, because it compromises their impartiality. That seems obvious."
Save Money in Winnipeg's Nadine explained that the event included "a lot of local bloggers and media." The blog, which also noted the "very nice swag bags," explained in her blog post about the event:
"I know there were people who were upset about a media only event - we did get the same 15% off discount that everyone else got on Saturday at the friends and family event."
But, her blogpost also noted the potential of bias for going to the event, writing:
"Do you think the $6 savings and bag of free stuff could have possibly changed my mind about Ikea? I chose to go for fun and to see the store. As a free agent and not employed by any organization I'm free to accept a glass (or more) of wine and an appetizer. If it was a company I didn't agree with would it have changed my mind, or would I have written them up a positive review? I'll leave that decision up to you."
iMediaEthics has asked the two bloggers -- Peg City Lovely's Natalie and Save Money in Winnipeg's Nadine -- how they handle disclosures of freebies, what ethics standards or guidelines they follow in blogging and how they got involved with the Ikea event.
iMediaEthics has also written to IKEA asking for a confirmed total of attendees, who these attendees were and how they were chosen, if anyone besides CBC turned down the invite for reasons of ethics, how often IKEA hosts these types of events, what the structure and purpose of these events are and for comment in response to CBC's criticism. We'll update with any response.
UPDATE: 12/1/2012 11:30 AM EST: Added info from Canadian Association of Journalists.