July 19, 2011

ETHICS: Quandary in a small town sports department

I received this from a former student now working at a smaller newspaper in a large Southwestern state and thought it might make both for a good discussion here and as an ethics case study/discussion in classes.

I think it is emblematic of some of the things that community journalists face that their larger-publication brethren don't.

So let's have at it in the comments. What would you have told the student? My thoughts follow the note (all of this is used with the person's permission):

Since football season wrapped up, I've been "honored" a lot. I guess my first-year here everyone was just feeling me out but a year later they've gotten use to me and my coverage. …

At the football banquet, they gave me a plaque thanking me. At the tennis banquet, same thing. Those I appreciated, and know there's nothing you can do about someone calling you up on stage and handing you a personalized something. Then came the hockey banquet where I got a $50 Outback gift card. And then on Friday, the family of a girl who plays basketball and softball gave me a card thanking me for all my work but that I didn't know had a $50 Chili's gift card in it.

I've gotten a few leftover T-shirts that the coaches had lying around in my closet. I never wear any apparel from either of my teams to any game. I might wear a T-shirt when I got to Walmart, but I usually wear the other stuff when I'm back in Carolina or if I'm just staying in for the day. Keep in mind none of this stuff I solicited. …

Is there a moral dilemma in accepting any of this stuff? I know people are just trying to express their appreciation for the job I'm doing and I really am thankful to have a great community to work with. Plus, I'm broke so a steak from a good restaurant is appealing to my appetite and a few new T-shirts keep me from spending money on new ones.

I believe none of the stuff I have received has affected or will affect my coverage. At the end of the day, I have a certain number of pages to fill and I have to go to the event(s) that help me fill those pages. I'm putting in my 50-plus hours giving everyone as much coverage as I can. … The girl whose parents gave the gift card happened to be the best basketball player on the team the last two years, so she earned the right be interviewed and photographed; but I think anyone will tell you I try to get every kid I can in the paper at some point in the year, trying to keep it fresh.

I've had the discussions before about accepting stuff from bowls (food, gifts, etc.) and I basically came to the conclusion it's a personal decision or up to whatever the paper says you can and can't do. This is just something I'd like a veteran to weigh in on.

Here was my response:
Always a quandary, where do we draw the line - at being human?

The gift cards are problematic. It's a real bear for a community journalist because you have to continue living in the community. But the very fact that it's bothering you shows that it's problematic.

You have plenty of personal integrity. Just raising the question shows that. And that's why it's a problem. You know you aren't going to be bought by a $50 gift card, etc. But you also know that, as a result of that personal integrity, appearances mean as much as reality. And there's no way to control appearances.

So here's what I would do:

 If you can, try to meet personally with those who gave them to you. Thank them profusely and tell them how honored you are that they think so highly of your work - that there is no greater praise than readers - and the parents of the children you cover - thinking you are doing right by their kids.

But then explain that thank-yous beyond an occasional kind word are problematic - you'd never want anyone to have reason to question your ethics - especially any opponent whom you might also have to write about.

So ask if they wouldn't mind if you treated the gift as recognition not only for your work, but also for all those others  (editors, former professors {grinnn}) who help make such work come together. And so it is a gift to the paper that would be honored to be able to use it to support an organization like Salvation Army or, better, the local kids' home that could really use the cards to thank their volunteers or show their kids a good time.

Before you do this ...

Go to your editor, outline this strategy, and get it blessed. There may be things you don't know about that could give the editor blowback (for all you know, one of these parents sits on the local Kiwanis with old eddie, and maybe said something about doing this and the boss, wanting to be a good guy or girl, said sure, OK).

Either way, sleep easy. You know your integrity.

No comments: