Sunday, February 25, 2007

Guilty, Your Honor

These are the ethical challenges we are wrestling with over at the USF Journalism Ethics class this week.

Three points:

1) The New York Times ethics guide is online. Its rigidity is unforgiving, bracing.

2) My impression is that the ethical guidelines for freebies have been tightening everywhere in recent years.

3) When I was in the city magazine game 30 years ago, we took everything we were offered and hinted that we'd like more. Of course, I lacked the fabulous training in journalism ethics I now dispense. And it was institutional: It was just the way we did business, from the top editors on down. Heck, I am where I am now doing what I do now because my wife and I took a free Eastern Airline junket to San Francisco. I wrote a clever piece. I submitted the clever piece to the Chron as my top clip. The rest is history, ancient history.

Thought it's true that 20 years ago at the Chronicle we had drinks with the publicists and looked at their legs.

It was corrupt in a small way. It's good the game is played that way less often now. But then I think about the rise of Internet journalism, which would seem to mean we will have more and more boutique news blogs with high ambitions and low low budgets. Is a new day coming for The Freebie?

Here are our little dilemmas, from a USF journalism grad.

• You are a theater critic for a big-city newspaper. You have built relationships with publicists, especially those at the smaller theaters where the companies are struggling to make ends meet but are really trying to give young directors, young playwrights, young actors a chance. One of these companies presents a play that is really terrible; it deserves to be ripped apart. But a city needs small independent theaters. Also, the publicist has made sure you were at the front of the line for various premiers and galas related to this, and other, theaters. She has put you in the best seat in the house for the past five shows by this particular company, and you have panned four of them. And here’s another stinker. What do you do?

• You are a lifestyle writer at a big-city newspaper who has been assigned to do a story on day spas in San Francisco. Your budget for the story is limited – and then seven out of the 10 days spas you are writing about offer you a free day of treatments. If you don’t take the treatments, you are going to have to write a story that’s based on the spa websites, on the spa press releases and on the spa PR people. What do you do?

• You are a lifestyle writer etc. etc. doing a story on chocolate shops. When you visit the chocolates shops, each one offers you samples. What do you do?

• You are etc. doing nightlife stories. You tour four or five hip new bars and attractive bartenders in tight-fitting garments offer you free cocktails. Seriously, three of the bars give you first-class treatment, generous with the Grey Goose martinis, while the other two offered you only a glass of ice. What do you do?

• You are a writer/editor at a music magazine that has a limited travel budget. The magazine is repeatedly offered free junkets to see a new violin shop open in Italy or to follow a famous performer on tour. As part of an invitation to review a summer jazz camp, you are offered a luxury cruise to Alaska. What do you do?

• You are a writer for a music magazine etc., and you are offered free tickets to many local musical performances, far more than you could possibly review. What do you do?

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