This is my ethics paper turned in on Nov. 11, 2008, for my Journalism and Democracy course. The text of the paper is also pasted below.
An upcoming festival in September 2007 had everyone in town excited. The newspaper I was working for planned a special preview section for it. As part of the paper’s coverage, I was assigned to do a story on a local barbecue vendor who was going to be at the festival.
A photographer and myself met with the vendor, who had fresh ribs cooking on his grill when we met him. The photographer took some photos, some with the ribs, others with trophies the vendor brought, and I asked some questions. After a half hour or so, we were ready to head back to the newsroom. Then the vendor popped the question: Do you guys want some ribs?
I was hesitant on what to say. It seemed shady to eat the vendor’s food since I was writing about him and the festival. But the story also wasn’t too serious. It was basically free advertising for him and our section seemed to be free promotion for the festival.
Without any hesitation, the photographer quickly said yes to the vendor. Soon, our hands were messy and mouths were watering thanks to the award-winning ribs we’d just tasted. We had eaten the ribs, and like when Eve ate the apple, there was no looking back.
On the drive back to the newsroom, we talked briefly about eating the vendor’s food. The photographer said this was advertorial journalism, something to be taken less serious than other forms of journalism, such as city council meetings or profiles about public officials. I agreed with him. He said journalists often take such ethics guidelines too seriously. I agreed, again. He also mentioned that the vendor was going to just throw away the food, as the vendor reasoned at the time, so it was better than the food going to waste. The photographer had made some good points, and I was OK with eating the food.
I agreed with him at the time, and I think I still do now. Although I wrestle back and forth with our decision from time to time and am still as I write this. But I know my story about the vendor wasn’t altered because I tried out a product of his. Some would argue I was more informed because of our decision to eat his food.
I think many journalism professors would probably disagree with the decision. I do agree with the photographer that journalists take themselves too seriously sometimes regarding certain ethics decisions. The photographer said if this was with a public official or something like that, taking food or gifts is obviously not OK. This was with a local vendor who lived with his parents, had a small barbecue business and, so it seemed, was trying to be a nice guy. He was a regular person, and not eating his food could have been construed as a rude gesture, some might say.
Perhaps photographers and reporters differ on some issues. But after some discussion, we were in agreement on this decision.