As I have discussed, I teach journalism at the University of Delaware. When I teach an introductory newswriting class, I always require students to get a Monday-Friday subscription to the New York Times, available on campus for a deeply discounted price of 50 cents an issue. (Money-saving tip: The Times makes the same offer to all professors (whether they assign the paper or not), students, AND K-12 educators, as well as similarly discounted prices for Saturday-Sunday.)
A couple of weeks back, I got a mailing from the Times with an appealing offer: if I required students to get the Monday-Friday paper, they would provide it to me for free. (The offer is detailed in the above link.) Now, it always surprises people not in the field, but journalists actually spend a lot of time thinking about, and base much of their professional behavior on, ethics. Probably the most important principle (other than not making up stuff) is avoiding conflict of interest. So that you should never accept anything of any monetary value from a source or anyone you have written about or might write about. It’s not so much that you could be bought for the price of a sandwich and a beer, as that it would look bad.
So you’re writing about the mayor, he picks up the tab, you write a profile that shows him to be a good mayor, because your reporting reveals that he is a good mayor. Then someone writes a letter to the paper saying: “Of course X wrote a puff piece! I saw the mayor bribing him with lunch?”
Your only response is, “Harumph, I cannot be bought, it doesn’t matter that he bought me lunch, I call em like I see em, etc. etc., etc.” AKA, you actually do not have a good response. Hence, do not accept anything.
With that in mind, my journalistic red flags went up when I got the Times offer. A professor is like a journalist—or a politician, who also shouldn’t take anything that is or resembles a bribe, or a doctor, no comment—in that we all are responsible for serving a constituency (students, readers, citizens, patients) and should do so in a disinterested manner that will cause the constituency to trust us. For professors, this would come up in decisions on assigning texts … or newspapers. I ended up taking the Times offer (which amounts to a savings of about $70 a year) mainly because, as I said, I always assigned students the paper anyway.
But then the New York Times rep e-mailed me and said, in effect, thanks for joining the program, I would like to talk about the Times in the classroom, would you like to have lunch? LUNCH! My ethical flags went up all over again. I actually do want to meet with this guy because I’m interested in what the Times is doing in this area (as a small element in the future of journalism), and lunch is as good a time as any. But I envisioned him grabbing for the check and saying “I can put this on my expense account,” and wondered how I would react. Of course, getting a free sandwich wouldn’t influence any future decisions on assigning the Times.
Or would it? And how would it look if, say, the campus newspaper did an investigative story, complete with grainy cell phone photo of me taking a big bite of a ham-on-cheese, about profs taking graft from content vendors? Would I have any response other than “Harumph”?
I decided to poll my English Dept. colleagues by e-mail (changing the newspaper rep to a textbook rep for the sake of simplicity):
Hypothetically, how would you react if you met with a rep for a textbook company for lunch, and he/she picked up the check? In journalism, accepting anything, including a hot dog, from anybody you have written about, are writing about, or may write about is a no-no. Is it the same in academia for a person whose firm you may patronize?
Most said to take the lunch.
- I think those reps have been hosting book viewings in our conference room–replete with great food and little tchokchkes.
- Bottom line: I don’t know. I hope it was a good lunch and that you don’t get indigestion or heartburn from it. I’d say thank you. I’d then make a decision about the best book for the course.
- I’d say thank you. I’d then make a decision about the best book for the course. The rep will be learning a lot from talking to you, whether or not he or she makes a sale.
- Our dept in March will have a Gale rep coming to peddle his databases—and he is throwing the dept a lunch—that is the cost of their doing business. So I think this business practice is different from someone seeking your good opinion in your prose [rather than your money in business]?
- Would he/she like to buy me lunch?
- I hope my pub reps are buying lots of lunches. not sure that’s what would close the deal or shape a syllabus. I’d order dessert.
- I see no real conflict. (No one ever does though!) If I am adopting a text, it has to work for me – no lunch would every convince me to adopt something that wouldn’t be right – it would be too much of a pain to use an ill-fitting text. Do you have a good argument for the contrary?
Only two saw a problem, the first a fellow journalism professor and the second not:
- I’d feel hinky, in the same way I don’t think doctors should accept free lunch from pharma reps. Sure, they’re going to choose the best medicine but if they have two equal pills in front of them, studies show they go for the free lunch one most of the time. I don’t even want to have to think about it.
- I think I would not take the free lunch. We sometimes have textbook reps come in for a “Book Fair” in Memorial Hall. Often pizza is a part of this event. But, it is not one-on-one, and there is not the implied pressure that one may get from a private lunch with a representative. [Good point!–BY] No such blandishment has ever been offered me, so I remain in the pre-ethical Edenic innocence.
As for me, I’m still not sure what I’ll do it he offers to pick up the tab. Maybe he won’t. I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’m looking up “hinky” at urbandictionary.com.