Owe nobody and make sure nobody owns you
Image courtesy of Alexis O'Toole and released under Creative Commons
Integrity scenario and question
You are a reporter on a small town newspaper and are covering a story about plans for a massive new leisure centre and hotel complex to be built locally.
You sense something is wrong when a local politician becomes an outspoken champion for the proposal, saying it 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 with the developer who has drawn up the plans.
Two years ago, when the hotel was extended, you and a few of your friends accepted an invitation for a weekend break including free meals and unlimited fine wine. At the time you felt uneasy about accepting, but you decided to go ahead anyway and make the most of the free offer.
As soon as you start to ask questions about this proposed new development, both the hotel owner and the politician remind you of your earlier lapse in editorial judgement. What do you do?
a) talk to your editor, admit that you accepted hospitality from someone who could be part of an investigation and leave it to your editor to decide how the story is covered.
b) drop the story in order to protect your newspaper and hope that by keeping quite and not asking awkward questions your earlier involvement will not be revealed.
Correct Answer: a) talk to your editor, admit that you had accepted hospitality from someone who could be part of an investigation and let the editor decide how the story is covered - learn that accepting favours could compromise your work as an independent journalist
Why a) is the right answer
The reason for this is that have already been compromised by accepting free hospitality. Remember the saying that there is no such thing as a free meal. 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.
Remember the six rules for getting it right from the article Is your journalism ethical? Take the test. After reminding yourself you can return to the journalism gifts and favours scenario to review the question.
Six rules for getting it right
1: Seek truth and report it as fully as possible – eyes wide open
2: Act independently – owe nobody and don’t seek favours or favourites
3: Minimise harm – had it not been for you, the world would never know
4: Assess all facts – don’t ignore the uncomfortable, or that which goes against your script
5: Independent sources – don’t follow the flock, find fresh voices and perspectives.
6: Thoroughly check the validity of information – take nothing at face value.
Owe nobody and don’t seek favours or favourites
The author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who founded Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast and online. He has spent many years delivering journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide.
This site has been given permission to use and adapt elements of the BBC's Editorial Guidelines in these short editorial ethics modules. They have been updated to reflect changing international, regional and cultural variations.