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The Ethics of Free Booze

June 26th, 2007 · 5 Comments

So, most periodicals have ethics rules prohibiting reporters from accepting gifts of more than nominal value from any person or organization they’ve written about or might cover in the future. And, formal rules or no, this seems like something of a no-brainer. But it occurred to me today that I’ve attended, gratis, several very nice dinners or parties thrown by various DC think tanks, often featuring open bars stocked with a variety of nice (and expensive) liquor. Typically I’ll run into quite a few writers for other mags or newspapers at these shindigs, and have never gotten a sense that it was regarded as a topic of concern by any of them. (Though as it didn’t occur to me to regard it that way either, I didn’t ask. Perhaps their institutions were paying for them to attend.) Still, the total cash value of one of these events is probably in excess of $100 for even a moderate tippler—and that’s without taking into account any swag bags guests may be given. And the institutions that throw these bashes certainly do work I cover. Is there any reason ordinary professional ethics shouldn’t keep us home with Chinese take-out?

Tags: Journalism & the Media



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Jun 26, 2007 at 8:08 pm

    SPJ code of ethics: “Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.”

    One might argue that you ought to be held to a different standard considering that you’re working in the opinion journalism field and that your ideological tendencies are well disclosed. I could buy that. Eating Heritage’s food isn’t going to make you start digging federal funding for marriage classes, is it?

    But if any of those pals of yours are real reporters, then yeah they are definitely violating various ethical codes. Is an ethics code binding even upon those who do not accept it? How specific ethics codes are varies from news organization to news organization. Usually, people learn from their peers and mentors. If they see everyone else scarfing down the freebies, they’ll figure it’s OK regardless of what some ethics code says.

  • 2 FinFangFoom // Jun 26, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    I concur with Kevin B. O’Reilly. Also, I can only see journalistic ethics codes more as guidelines since journalists don’t actually owe any fiduciary duty to anyone. High falutin’ sentiments regarding their importance to a free society aside, nobody gives journalists the power that people give to their doctors and lawyers.

    My impression is that journalists not on tv or NYT best seller list have to sell plasma to survive. Thus the mere fact that a think tank is serving rubbery chicken might be a problem, as it attracts starving journalists who will be more likely then to cover the event. However, if all of these kinds of events serve food as a matter of custom, that should lessen the concern.

    The real ethics concern here is the fact that you appear not to be tipping the bar staff even though it’s an open bar. Unless your guzzling decades old cognac and single malt scotch, the liquor you drink won’t amount to that much per person. But you should tip the bar staff. Assuming, that is, it’s professional and not interns.

  • 3 FinFangFoom // Jun 26, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Sorry, that wasn’t clear. The value you are assigning to the booze appears too high to me because I am assuming that you are comparing it to the cost of a drink in a bar with tip.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Jun 26, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    No, of course I tip the bartenders; I didn’t meant to suggest otherwise.

  • 5 Anonymous // Jun 27, 2007 at 1:56 am

    I guess if you’re really worried about it, you could document all the gifts you receive and the dates that you receive them somewhere on your website, and let people draw their own conclusions. But don’t give up the happy hour/dinner circuit, it wouldn’t be DC without free booze and appetizers.