Do free airline tickets, hotel rooms or restaurant meals influence reporters’ opinions, or give the appearance that they do? Many publications, like the New York Times, believe that they do and, therefore, ban the too frequently hidden practice of accepting freebies, even if they are disclosed.
The New York Times’ ethics in journalism policy states:
“No writer or editor for the Travel section, whether on assignment or not, may accept free or discounted services of any sort from any element of the travel industry. This includes hotels, resorts, restaurants, tour operators, airlines, railways, cruise lines, rental car companies and tourist attractions.”
The Wall Street Journal unpublished three travel articles by a reporter earlier this year after discovering the writer accepted free hotel stays. The New York Times, which had published articles by the same reporter, added an editor’s note to one of his articles admitting that he had taken freebies.
But, the policy for the Globe and Mail allows an exception. Globe and Mail public editor Sylvia Stead blogged recently that taking freebies is acceptable but only for travel writing — and not for reviews of movies or theater performances.
The Globe and Mail’s code of conduct specifically addresses free travel, Stead said.
“Accepting press or media rates for travel is acceptable for certain features, with the approval of a senior editor. In the interests of transparency, any story written by staff members or freelancers that is based on free or discounted travel arrangements must include a disclosure to the reader as to the discounted or free services.”
One recent disclosure stated: “The writer was a guest of Destination British Columbia and Mountain Trek. Neither reviewed or approved the story.”
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Stead blogged in response to a reader who complained after seeing a disclosure. The reader asked why the practice is allowed given it would be “clearly a violation of journalistic integrity” in any other field, like politics.
Transparency is key in regards to accepting free travel, Stead commented.
Stead told iMediaEthics by e-mail that when the Globe does accept free or discounted travel, “it is on a case by case basis and up to the senior editor’s approval.”
“The transparency must be followed though in these cases,” she added.
Stead also noted that the Globe’s Editorial Code carries guidance for how its journalists handle product samples, free admission to events, and food and drinks at events.
Stead added that the newspaper doesn’t have to disclose when its reviewer goes to a free movie or play because the movie or play can’t change what the reviewer will see and the shows are much cheaper than travel.
She explained: “the movie and theatre producers offer the same show to the reviewer that others will experience. On the other hand, if a cruise company knows that the reviewer is there, the experience can be different from the one someone else would find on the same cruise.”