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When you work in journalistic broadcasting, one of the enduring dilemmas you face is what to do about free stuff from possible sources. Do you accept it or not? Is it a bribe by someone vying for airtime and favorable coverage or is it something thats going to help you do your job? Free stuff ranges from seeing plays for no charge to getting free tickets to sporting events to getting free books from publishers.

At These Days we struggle with this question from time to time. Recently, a group that appeared on the show left us several tickets to a local sporting event. The tickets would normally cost some money. So, by accepting them for free are we wrongly accepting something of value? Im not talking about Padres tickets, by the way. This is an event that is in far less demand and not something we were dying to attend.

Freebies are a dilemma for all journalists. We always have someone trying to give us something because theyre looking for publicity for their product, whether that product is a service, an artistic event or a manufactured good. Sometimes theyre trying to create a good relationship with a reporter.

I remember a local TV producer in the Midwest who told me that members of his stations staff would get all sorts of freebies around Christmas time. The most generous gift givers, he said, were local funeral homes that would drop off lots of cigarettes and whiskey for people who worked in the newsroom. Given the health hazards of their gifts, I wondered whether the funeral homes were really trying to buy favor, or whether they were just hoping the reporters would die sooner.

When the issue of freebies comes up for These Days , it often involves free tickets to an event. Is it right to accept the free ticket? Well lets say were thinking of doing a show on a local play. We may want to see the play so were better informed about it or so we can make a decision about coverage.

Could we pay to see the play it ourselves? Yes. But our stations budget for such events is small, to say the least. And you may know that public broadcasters are not typically paid royal salaries that allow us to pick up the cost of a pricey show anytime we want. In the case of the play, if we dont accept the free ticket that may simply mean that we end up ignoring the event. That may be bad news judgment and bad for our audience.

What about free books from publishers? KPBS receives free books all the time so many that we have no idea what to do with all of them. In truth, very few of them become subjects for our shows. But should we send them back to the publisher, saying we cant accept free stuff? I think thats going too far. It would be a big hassle and, besides, we never asked for the books!

In the end, we have to make decisions about free stuff on a case by case basis. Its really that simple. Are we accepting something for free that we really want and would consider paying for? Or are we only accepting it because we have to read it, see it or analyze it for our jobs? There is a difference between one and the other.

You also have to consider the true value of the thing youre being offered.

If someone gave you free tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, thats one thing. But if the tickets are for some small theater production, which is unlikely to ever sell out, thats something else.

In other words, accepting stuff doesnt necessarily mean you are compromising your journalistic values. It depends on the value of the thing, your relationship with the source, and its relationship to your work.

Beth Accomando
July 31, 2007 at 07:29 PM
As a film critic, I'm flooded with free stuff, or swag as we like to call it. I honestly don't give it much thought because it's never changed my opinion of a film. Occasionally, the swag, which is sometimes combined with informational press materials, peaks my interest in a film. For example, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai sent out envelopes that had been torn open and were empty. The next day I received an envelope with no return address and a note saying that spies were everywhere and documents would now be sent under secret cover. What followed were "top secret" files on the characters in the film. Okay, that clever promo material got my attention and I ended up loving the film because it was even more clever than the promotion campaign. But I've taken plenty of free movie passes and panned the films I saw. And no amount of clever swag could have ever made me like the 2 Pirates sequels. On the other hand, I draw the line at attending paid junkets where the press gets free travel, free food and free hotels in order to see a film and talk to talent. Accepting that kind of "compensation" seems to cross a line. I think that cheap trinkets and swag, which are given out to thousands of critics and moviegoers, is unlikely to influence anyone's opinion. I do, however, treasure such items as my Fargo snow globe and Shaun of the Dead pint glasses. And I sometimes mention the promo items for either their cleverness or stupidity in my reviews. I think what is more likely to sway a movie review is a face to face interview with a director or star. It's much easier to slam a film when you haven't met the star or filmmaker (especially if that person seems genuinely nice and sincere in their passion for their film). That's my take on free stuff but I think having been a critic and attending the Comic-Con for more than twenty years has made me immune to swag--it's just there for the taking like a free mint at a restaurant. It doesn't mean I'll tip the waiter any better. Plus since I'm a movie lover, just getting the photos for a movie in a press kit, which are vital to doing a movie review, seems like a treat to me. In fact the whole idea that someone pays me to see and write about movies makes me feel like I'm getting away with something. So maybe I'm just the wrong person to comment here since a more serious journalistic and ethical question is posed here by Tom. -----

joanne faryon
August 03, 2007 at 09:44 PM
I just wanted to add an anecdote of my own. I use to cover city hall in my hometown. Sometimes, the press got free sandwiches and coffee at some of the long committee meetings. I had the coffee, but never the sandwiches. I was too young and inexperienced to have made that judgement call based on ethical reasons. It was probably more about the corned beef looking too fatty, or fattening, or some such stupid reason. Anyway, part of my job was to cover city budget deliberations. As I went line by line through the budget, I discovered our new mayor was spending an outrageous amount of public money (thousands) on free lunches. That included the media's corned beef sandwiches. Anyway, I did the story and it was the front page headline of the tabloid newspaper I worked for. I was grateful for vanity stopping me from eating a sandwich. Anyway, it made me think about how free stuff can, in a way you least expect, influence the stories you cover. Would I have told my editor about the free lunch budget line had I partaken? I hope so, but who knows?

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