Journalistic ethics – scenario

There is no such thing as a free lunch

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Mark.murphy at English Wikipedia</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0</a>
Image by Mark.murphy at English Wikipedia released via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

You are a reporter working on a newspaper in a coastal resort where there are plans to build a new leisure centre on the site of an old hotel complex dating back to Victorian times.

You sense that something is wrong when a local politician becomes an outspoken champion for the proposal, despite widespread opposition from environmental campaigners, historians, and residents. The politician says the development will be good for business and for the fortunes of the town.

While investigating the story you find that the politician has close business connections with the owner of the hotel who submitted the planning application and the developer who has had the building plans drawn up. It’s also emerged that the politician has links with a betting firm that plans to open a casino on the new leisure site.

Three years ago, when the Victorian hotel was extended, you accepted an invitation to attend the opening. There was a buffet and free bar. The party went on late into the night. The owner generously offered free accommodation. The next day you wrote a story for the newspaper which carried the headline “Victorian hotel given new lease of life”.

Now, three years on, as soon as you start to ask questions about the proposed new development, both the hotel owner and the politician remind you that you were quite happy to enjoy the hotel’s hospitality in the past and that surely you owe them a favour.

They ask you what it would look like if they let it be known that you were a journalist who liked to accept free gifts from local businesses.

They hand you a news release they have prepared along with some exclusive artist impressions of the proposed development and suggest you reproduce the material unchanged.

What do you do? Do you:

  1. Talk to your editor, admit that you accepted hospitality at the opening event three years ago and leave it to your editor to decide how the story is covered.
  2. Drop the investigative part of the story in order to protect yourself and your newspaper in the hope that by keeping quiet and not asking awkward questions your earlier involvement will not be revealed.
  3. Take the news release and images from the businessman and publish the story the way they want it presented.

Suggested action

You should talk to your editor and admit that you had accepted hospitality from people who are now part of your investigation and that they have warned you not to explore the story any further. Share the information you have with your editor, set out the links you have uncovered, and enlist their support for continuing with your piece.

The only way to resolve such issues is by being honest and transparent in all your dealings and then learning that accepting what some might consider to be favours could compromise your work as a journalist.

Why this is the right answer

There is a saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. This means that when you are given something free of charge, people often expect a favour in return.

For a journalist, this is particularly difficult. However, we are all learning and you will certainly not make the same mistake again.

You must talk to your editor, tell him or her all the facts, be totally honest, and move on.

Your newspaper owes it to its readers to tell the truth, and the story must be investigated, even if it proves embarrassing to you.

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

Related training modules

Is your journalism ethical?

Integrity and journalism