Journalistic integrity – scenario

All the scenarios on Media Helping Media are based on real events.

Image byasenat29 shared via Creative Commons
Image byasenat29 shared via Creative Commons

You are a political correspondent working for a broadcaster.

A general election has been called.

You receive an invitation to speak at a public event about the role of journalists in covering elections.

You are flattered. Leading politicians will be attending. You think that taking part will be good for making new contacts.

The event goes well. There is a lively question-and-answer session after your talk. The audience seems keen to learn more about the relationship between the media and politicians.

The people who invited you to speak ask whether you would be prepared to do some private coaching for a number of politicians who were interested in what you had to say.

It turns out that the organisers are a public relations and marketing company working on behalf of one of the main political parties.

The fee suggested for the proposed media training is five times the daily rate you receive from the media organisation you work for.

When you check out of the hotel the next morning the receptionist hands you a small package and an envelope which had been left by your hosts.

In the envelope are details of the media training proposal and a contract for you to sign; the package contains an exercise watch.

What do you do?

Do you:

  • Accept the gift as a payment for your services, and agree to take on the media training for the politicians. After all, you have expertise that they seem to need and are willing to pay for.
  • Hand the gift back, and explain that although you were happy to talk about the role of the journalist in covering elections, you are not interested in coaching politicians on how to manage the media.
  • Go back to the office, resign as a journalist and take up a new career teaching politicians how to avoid tough questions and spin a line.

Suggested action

You should hand the gift back, and explain the situation to your editor.

It’s not wise for political journalists to get involved in training politicians. That is the job of public relations and communications professionals.

It’s fine to offer to speak about the role of journalists in covering elections, but it’s not a good idea to be rewarded by a political party, even indirectly.

Accepting gifts

It’s potentially dangerous for a journalist to accept gifts. They will never be free. There will always be a price to pay at some future date.

Your media organisation will have a policy on this. Usually, the best advice is to refuse gifts.

There may be some situations where a reporter or producer on a lifestyle programme is offered facilities to sample so that they can review  them.

In such cases the following rules should apply:

  • Keep accurate records of what has been accepted.
  • Always inform suppliers that they cannot refer to your news organisation in selling their products.
  • Never offer suppliers any editorial influence in the programme you are producing.

Conflicts of interest

There must never be any situation where personal, commercial, business, financial or other interests have any bearing on your editorial decisions.

Typical situations where there could be a conflict of interest for journalists include:

  • Public speaking/public appearances at events which have a political agenda.
  • Media public relations training, where the journalist is asked to train business leaders or politicians in how to avoid tough questions and spin a line.
  • Personal connections to charities, campaign organisations, and political parties.
  • Accepting hospitality and personal benefits during the course of your work where there is an expectation of an editorial return.
  • Personal financial and business interests associated with the stories you are covering.

Conclusion

It’s fine for journalists to speak at public events about their work; how those attending use what they hear is up to them.

But staff members of, or regular freelancers for, any media organisation should always obtain permission from their employers beforehand. As long as you are a journalist for them, your actions reflect on them whenever you speak, appear or work in any other role you are offered that involves journalism. Your actions can affect your news organisation’s credibility and reputation.

What you should not do is work on behalf of one group or other in order to help them improve how they package and present their particular message and avoid tough questioning from journalists.

The political correspondent in this scenario didn’t do anything wrong, but was probably naive in accepting the invitation in the first place.

They really should have asked more questions about who was organising the event, who would be attending, and why it was being staged.

Related training module

Integrity and journalism