Question of the Week: What do you do if a source offers a free item?

Each week, SPJ UW is planning on asking a Question of the Week to our local journalism community, to start a conversation around the little questions that come up in our reporting that we’ve always been curious about. We welcome any and all responses. These responses will be discussed at our next meeting, to which we welcome and encourage anyone to come.

This week’s question: What do you do if a source offers you food, a drink or a free item? And what if cross cultural differences, like the importance of hospitality, come into play?

Tell us what you think on Facebook.

Here’s what we’ve heard so far:

Kathy Best, executive editor, The Seattle Times: “We tell our journalists, young and old, to politely but firmly decline offers of free items. If items arrive unsolicited, we send them back if the cost of mailing doesn’t exceed the value. If mailing exceeds the value, we donate the item to our Fund for the Needy auction.”

Diana Kramer, publisher, The Daily: “I think it depends. If I visit someone in her office, and she offers a glass of water or coffee, I generally accept if I think the interview could take some time and that getting the water or coffee is quick and easy to do because everything needed is right there. If the meeting is during lunch, and the only way to meet the source is over food, I usually try to pay for both. At the very least, pay for my own. If the meeting is in their home, and I’m offered food, I generally decline unless doing so seems rude or awkward. Generally I try to stay away from eating-while-working because they take too much time and it’s awkward to eat and make notes.

Accepting a free item is a different matter entirely. News organizations have rules against this. I’ve been offered things, but politely declined.”

Michael Shepard, regional publisher at Wick Communications, and long-time newspaper publisher: “I don’t have as absolutist a view of it as my friend Kathy. I think this requires a quick evaluation of both the circumstance and the person making the offer. If the offerer is someone with something to gain (near or long term) from the news outlet or reporter, then I would wholeheartedly agree: Buy our own coffee and return any gifts. If you are dealing with a subject who is pretty clearly offering something that would be offered a casual visitor, then I don’t have an issue.

“There is no upside, as I see it, to turning away baked goods from the subject of a local volunteer feature who wanted to express their appreciation with a dozen cookies. Lots of judgment calls in our business!”


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