When a journalist reviews something, who should pick up the tab?
Old-school journalism ethics provide a simple answer: The journalist’s employer pays for the meal, hotel room, trip, admission or whatever expense the writer incurs in reporting his or her piece. By not accepting a “freebie,” the journalist can write about whatever he or she is reviewing without the appearance that he or she’s been comprised by not paying his or her own way.
But there’s a problem with that standard of journalism ethics.
The reviewer did not pay his or her own way. The employer did.
I thought about this last week, when I posted to my theme park website a review of a $400-a-night hotel. Those 400 bucks came out of my pocket. Since I am the owner and publisher of my website, there is no employer to whom I can submit that expense for reimbursement. (I can deduct the payment as a business expense for tax purposes, but so would an employer, too. And there’s a huge difference between getting a $400 reimbursement and being excused from paying income taxes on $400 that I still have to pay.)
When I write about theme parks in other parts of the country, I pay for airfare or gas to get there. I pay for the admission tickets, hotel rooms and my meals. Together, these expenses add up to thousands of dollars a year – all coming out of my bank account.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining about the expense. Fortunately, my website generates enough advertising income that I can pay these expenses and have enough left over to provide myself a decent (though not spectacular) income. And I get to do something I love.
But when I pay those credit card bills at the end of the month, I feel that. Every time I sign a charge receipt, or open my wallet to pull out some cash, I know that’s my money going there. Sure, paying up is part of the cost of doing business as a publisher, but you still feel it, nevertheless.
That affects the way I write. A hotel might provide stunning architecture, fawning service and well-appointed rooms, but are all those benefits worth the expense? This isn’t just about the appearance of impropriety or favoritism. Basic human nature dictates that a writer’s gonna be more skeptical of something like a hotel room’s value when that writer is paying the equivalent of a month’s car payment to stay there, as opposed to when a company such as Disney or Universal picks up the tab instead.
This value equation affects what I choose to cover, too. If I question the value of something, and also don’t see the reader demand for information about it, I skip that venue and choose to cover something else, either a venue in high demand, or a hidden gem I feel might deliver value that the public overlooks. I wonder if I would be as careful with these decisions if someone else were paying the bill.
Full disclosure: There are occasions when I don’t pay to get into a venue. Theme parks often host press events when they premiere new attractions. These events are either not open to the public, or if they are, the public is allowed to see them only from the periphery. Being credentialed to these press events typically allows first access to new rides or shows, which is important if you’re trying to post a timely review.
But I still pay my way to the event, and pay my way into parks when I’m writing or photographing other rides, shows and restaurants. To me, the job of a critic is to place something within an appropriate context – comparing it with competing works, to past works, and finding other ways to connect the thing being reviewed with the experience of the reader’s everyday life. Part of that context is, and should be, the expense of experiencing the thing being reviewed.
Not everyone covering theme parks pays their own way. When I covered a major new attraction opening in Orlando last summer, almost every other website publisher I met there had either been flown to Orlando at the park’s expense, or was staying for free at one of the park’s hotels. I had refused the park’s offer of a free flight and hotel stay in favor of paying my own way.
I thought that put me in the company of the “professional” journalists, from the newspapers and TV stations also covering the event. But then I realized that none of them were paying out of their own pocket, either.
In the end, what’s the difference if the event host is picking up the tab, or your employer? In either case, you’re not paying the expense. So how can you say that you’re in the position of the consumer you’re trying to guide and advise?
Ultimately, I do believe that there is a difference between a host paying and an employer paying. At least when an employer is paying, one might feel more of an obligation to write for the employer’s needs than for the host’s. But even then, ultimately, you’re writing to please an editor who wasn’t at the event and isn’t paying out of his or her own pocket, either. While I believe that a better approach that taking freebies from a host, I don’t think it affords the opportunity for genuine connection with an audience that paying from one’s own pocket does.
Perhaps this, then, helps explain some of the popularity of reader-written review sites online. Not only do such services cover many more venues than traditional critics ever could hope to review, they are written by people who more often paid their own way. They’re beholden to no one, save themselves and other readers like them.
Sure, trolls and plants infect those sites, too, but I do believe that people want and appreciate the authenticity of criticism from people like themselves, who are trying to get value – entertainment, accommodation or even insight – for their money.
Imagine if sports pages were written by people who had to pay their own way into games. Would the cost of attending sporting events be left to one column a year, when someone releases a study on the topic, or would ticket, parking and concession prices become a bigger issue in press coverage of pro sports? (Of course, if newspapers and broadcast stations demanded that from their sportswriters, they might be so few of them left in the field that they’d be outnumbered by the athletes on a single NBA team.)
Obviously, not every writer, or even news organization, can afford to pay their own way to everything they’d like to cover. I know I can’t. I’d love to be on site at Tokyo Disneyland this month, covering that park’s reopening following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Yet after paying my quarterly income tax bill, my checking account is a bit light for that flight.
But what if Tokyo Disneyland, or some other foreign theme park, offered to pay my way for a visit? Would my readers prefer reading my report of a trip I didn’t pay for over reading no coverage at all? Maybe I can find a local to step up and write a report. But maybe I can’t. And even if I did, would that report be better than a report I could produce myself, if I were on the scene?
These are tough questions for publishers, trying to balance the books while creating original coverage that attracts and retains an audience. Moving from a newsroom to a publisher’s chair has made me realize that an ethical issue I once thought simple isn’t so simple any longer.