Press ethical standards have more grays than blacks and whites. But few are more clear cut, simple or accepted than those condemning acceptance of gifts and favors, or "freebies," by news people.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Associated Press Managing Editors and many other media organizations have such provisions in their codes.APME says, for example: "Newspapers should accept nothing of value from news sources or others outside the profession. Gifts and free or reduced rate travel, entertainment, products and lodging should not be accepted." Period. The reason, of course, is that perks can lure news people into potentially compromising relationships - the kind of conflicts the press is quick to condemn in others - or appear to do so.
- SKI FREE: The codes often leap to mind in this season of giving, but never more forcefully than this week after the Park City Ski Resort sent letters to 135 newspapers and stations offering free lift passes on any of nine selected weekends.
A Park City day pass costs $32 this year. The total gratuity involved thus could amount to $576 per person invited, any "reporters, photographers, on-air personalities and those people directly involved in putting together stories," as the invitation put it.
Many news people, like the writer who brought the Park City invitation to my attention, try to follow the letter and spirit of their codes. Tougher in-house conflict-of-interest rules have had a demonstrable effect, too. As a National News Council report put it in 1984, "Fewer fashion editors get their clothes wholesale these days. Fewer sports writers ride free on team planes, get paid to write for league program magazines. . . . Fewer travel writers take free airline tickets. . . . Fewer outdoor writers take free equipment. . . . Many fewer book editors sell review copies that are sent free to their papers. . . ."
But sad to say, some couldn't care less what the standards ask. In past years at Park City about a dozen news people have happily responded to the offer each week.
Some years ago, the KSL-TV news staff agreed with the news director, Spence Kinard, that the 20 or so Snowbird season passes proffered at that time should be rejected, though I'd have to suppose some staffers felt a twinge of regret in putting conscience first.
- I CALLED SNOWBIRD last week to see if it, like Park City, is still offering news people a ski deal in which the price is really right.
I learned that this year the resort is inviting about 150 people in radio, TV and newspapers - travel, arts, business and other writers - to accept free season lift passes. A full season pass at Snowbird would cost you and me $850.
As a matter of policy, some news managements have balked. Both Ch. 5 and Ch. 2 have told the resort that acceptance of gifts is against station policy. Deseret News Managing Editor LaVarr Webb says he didn't receive the Park City notice, though several people on his staff did. Webb says he will remind them that the News policy is amply stated in its own manual: "Employment related gifts exceeding $25 (it has gone up from $15 in recent years) should not be accepted and should be returned with a note of thanks explaining our policy." The paper permits the acceptance of gifts of insignificant value, a slight departure from the "nothing of value" admonitions of the codes.
Tribune Editor Will Fehr says someone put the Park City note on a bulletin board and that he promptly took it down. He says he, too, will tell staffers they shouldn't accept.
The Park City invitation also invited non-news employees of stations and newspapers to "discuss trading ski passes for advertising." Many media, including KSL, permit this arrangement because it is a straight commercial deal that does not directly involve the news department or suggest the trader will get favorable news treatment.
- BOTH RESORT communications directors, Mark Menlove at Park City and Mary Jane Spencer at Snowbird, say they made the offer merely to acquaint media people with the resorts so they could report more knowledgeably. Both say the passes are not intended as a kind of bribery for favorable coverage - no strings are attached - and both say that if there's any ethical problem it's the media's alone, since nobody's arm is being twisted to accept a pass.
Kinard disputes the necessity argument, however. He says his staff has plenty of people who ski and has no problem finding knowledgeable reporters to cover the resorts.
And Spencer acknowledges that the most professional of the ski writers are the least inclined to accept free passes. Ski reporters from outside Utah pay for everything. They won't allow you to pick up a luncheon tab because they don't want to be `marked.' "
The codes emphasize that even the appearance of impropriety - the very notion that press favor can be bought - should be rejected. That's the way it ought to be.
- WORLDWIDE, FREEBIES are a concern for the press. Even in China, where a modest ethics movement is growing, gifts to news people are being condemned by press organizations. The media have been guilty of some hypocrisy, criticizing cadres who lay out feasts at press conferences but allowing reporters to indulge in those banquets. I went to one of almost sybaritic lavishness at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. After the dinner, everyone there, including the news people, got a large bag of gifts - wine, an ornamental plate, embroidered pillow covers and such. At least the press is beginning to recognize the absurdity of these practices.