Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » Can you buy a story for a meal?



While working on a story last week about the shortage of wait staffs, reporter Allison Miles picked up several menus from the new Hu Dat restaurant. Inside were invitations to a special lunch in which Hu Dat offered free food as a training exercise for its new staff.

Miles asked whether she or anyone in the newsroom should use the invitation to attend the lunch. We posed the question to our ethics board. I'd like to hear your thoughts, too.

Rather than call a special meeting for a relatively minor issue, we discussed the issue via e-mail exchanges. Most ethics board members thought it was OK because the dollar value was relatively small and the offer was extended to many community members with no expectation of favorable news coverage.

Here's how one member put it: "If Allison did a regular restaurant review, there would be a question, in my mind. But I don't see any conflict at all here. Whatever news coverage she creates will be about the shortage of waiters, not the quality of the dining experience."

A few members, though, said they were concerned about the public perception of accepting the invitation. One reporter said he wouldn't even accept a Coke from a source for this reason.

The reporter put it this way: "I don't think Allison would be influenced by the gift. But what would the public's perception be?"

That's clearly the question. What would your perception be? The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics instructs journalists to act independently. The Advocate's supplementary code tries to apply a "reasonable person" standard as opposed to zero tolerance.

As it turns out, Miles was busy with work and didn't attend the invitation-only meal anyway. If she or another journalist had, what would you think about any coverage or the newspaper?