Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Reporters and "gifts"

I’m sure you wonder, as a reporter, do you get wined and dined and pampered like royalty?

Some do, sometimes. It’s normal for businesses to try to treat reporters well while hoping for more exposure or positive news coverage. Some people will give away product samples or goody bags, and hotels may give a big discount or even a free stay. Most people in most cases first refuse politely and then accept graciously, given that it doesn’t involve any cash or whose value adds up to a scandalous amount. What each reporter does with the “mini bribes” is up to them. Most of us aren’t bribable. We write what we think is right, unless our boss tells us otherwise, or if it involves a product placement. In which case, we write the story and leave our names out of it.

Sometimes the perks make it nice to be a reporter.

Sometimes the perks make some ungrateful reporters.

Recently as I’ve been going on business trips more for travel stories, I’ve been hearing some colleagues say, “I can’t believe they’re making us share two rooms when there are three of us.” Or, “They should be buying us a really nice dinner.” But even in Taipei, I hear people say, “I can’t believe there wasn’t a goodie bag.” Or, “That’s it? That’s all we get?” Sometimes I wonder if they’ve forgotten what their job is and if they’ve lost all sense of what’s proper and what’s not. No one owes reporters anything. Reporters don’t owe anyone anything. We get a story when they provide us with things to shoot, and they get exposure. When it comes to consumer or lifestyle news, it’s usually a mutually beneficial relationship. No one owes anyone anything.

It sucks to go on a TWD1200/person/night budget for hotel, but sometimes I think I’d rather stay at a roach motel than be complained to about how the people who are already giving us a big discount at a more than decent motel/B&B isn’t giving us everything we can only be wishing for with the amount of money the company gives us to spend.

Or maybe this is once again culture shock. There are gift and money giving traditions in this part of the world that I don’t understand. Frustrating.


catherine_sr. said...

I found this very interesting as a reporter working at an English-language newspaper in Taipei. I went to journalism school and worked in NYC before moving here and I was taught that there should always be strict guidelines re: freebies and gifts from sources. I never take anything unless it's the usual, inexpensive promotional stuff they hand out to media (key chains, books, baseball caps, etc.). I've never been offered anything of greater value. If I were, I'd certainly be uncomfortable accepting it... but at the same time worried about offending the giver by refusing directly, especially if I wanted to keep in contact with them. As an American, I'm always wary of being culturally ignorant and accidentally stepping on people's toes. I was wondering if you had some advice on how to handle such a situation gracefully. Is it OK to flat out say no or is there some form of etiquette you should follow?

catherine_sr. said...

Sorry for the second comment, but I just reread your post and caught your last line (I read too fast sometimes!): "There are gift and money giving traditions in this part of the world that I don’t understand. Frustrating."

I agree, I'm totally befuddled by the value of the things some reporters are willing to accept here! I can understand why they'd like those "perks," but I personally would _hate_ the loss of independence I think accepting gifts forces on a reporter.

翁郁容 Michella Jade Weng ミシェラ・オング said...

Hi Catherine,

Thanks for reading and thanks for leaving a note, or two ;)

If you go down south, you'll get to experience more of the old reporter culture - people are more likely to hand you 紅包. Though it happens in Taipei too, it's quite rare these days. I blogged about that some time ago. http://mi-chanchan.blogspot.com/2008/10/cha-ching-culture-of-money.html

As for how to refuse, I'm still not quite sure how to do it gracefully yet either. Small gifts with little or no monetary value, I thank the giver and take the gift graciously. Money gifts, I never take. I've learned to look through the big manila envelope or bag and see if there is money in it. If there is, I'll take it out and hand it back to them right away and say, "Thank you, but I'm sorry, we can't take this." If the back-and-forth mess gets impossible and it just looks like they're not going to let me out the door without taking the money, then I go back to the office, hand the money to my deputy managing director, tell him the situation and have him formally return it. I tell my cameraman that I've returned the money and it's up to him to decide whether or not to do the same (he'd better or else he'd look like a dirty reporter, since I came clean with it).

So when it comes to potential conflicts like accepting gifts or accepting requests for speeches or interviews or to host events, recently I've learned to ask myself these questions:
1. will this hurt my reputation as a reporter/anchor?
2. will the value of the exchange cause a scandal?

Just some thoughts. I didn't go to journalism school, so I'm learning everything as I'm going along. Maybe you can tell me what the textbooks say :)

BTW, I think we may have quite a bit in common. I also grew up in northern California (lived in Cupertino and Los Altos Hills). Am a sort-of Chinese-American who is currently living in Taipei and working as a journalist. Would love to get together for tea sometime :)

Anonymous said...

I am a very regular reader. I do like your blog and I do like your sense of ethic.
Just one question which has nothing to do with "bribe" and of course nothing to do with you.

"...We write what we think is right, unless our boss tells us otherwise..."

Yes... direct or indirect self-censoring...
It's also a key point in our days (not only in Taiwan)beside the "gifts" stuff.
In one hand, journalists have their integrity (most of them I hope) and in the other hand, they have to feed their family...
If a journalist is dealing with economical and/or political news, how can he/she manage it?
Easy to guess the next question...
Obviously, not easy to be a good and respectable journalist, especially given the fact that he/she can't control the relationships between the owner of the media and the power in charge.
Eternal problem and eternal question without practical answer...
We could also talk about the targets (the ones reading newspapers and watching TV)...

翁郁容 Michella Jade Weng ミシェラ・オング said...

Hi Franck,

Thanks for your comment :)

I believe most of the conflicts happen in political news, if you write it in the way that the editor doesn't like it, he/she will change it. It's as simple as that. You take it or you leave it. If you won't do it, someone else will do it for you.

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Just arrived on your blog from the globalvoicesonline blog. Nice write-up! And yes, the boundaries are blurred here and there. Good to see you sticking to what you believe in! :)

翁郁容 Michella Jade Weng ミシェラ・オング said...

Thanks, Sudipta :)

Άλισον said...

I wonder if the rich KMT, CCP party officials are giving perks worldwide to newspapers editors and to selected reporters (except the Liberty Times and the Taipei Times)?

Fortunately most papers have comments area for readers to leave their comments, so the stories cannot be too far off, still we see headlines that are quite biased such as the 1500 Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan is not a threat by BBC standard.

If the Chinese missiles were aimed at London, the BBC will revise its standard I am sure.

I don't just read the papers from the mainstream media, I read posts from the bloggers, and the comments from both to get the fact.

BTW, are you a 台僑 or a 華僑 ?

翁郁容 Michella Jade Weng ミシェラ・オング said...

Really? Did the BBC's putting the word "threat" in quotations mean that the BBC doesn't believe the 1500 missiles are a threat? That would be interesting if they felt that way...

I'm officially Taiwanese, but ethnically Chinese, culturally American and Japanese as well. Let's not get too political here ;) Why can't we all just love each other as human beings?

catherine_sr. said...

Thanks for your response Michella! When I went to j-school, professors varied in how they told us to handle offers of free stuff. Some told us we couldn't accept ANYTHING, period, even something as small as a cup of coffee; others offered guidelines similiar to yours (they said that we had to use our own best judgement about whether or not our objectivity would be compromised).

In the newsrooms where I worked, reporters were generally allowed to accept things like review books or samples that were worth up to a certain dollar amount. If something more valuable was sent to us, we either had to send it back, or give it to the newsroom, which would then donate it to a charity (or sell it and donate the proceeds).

My professors never discussed cash gifts, probably because they figured it went without saying that we weren't supposed to take them. I didn't really know about the 紅包 thing until I told my relatives that I was going to be a reporter here, and they started telling me about all the stuff reporters get offered in Taiwan and China. It was definitely an eye-opener!

I'd love to get together for tea... my e-mail is theflyingshu AT gmail.com. I grew up in Cupertino, so we probably know a lot of places in common :-).

Άλισον said...

I treat all my relatives equally whether they are from Taiwan, China, Japan, France, Sweden, USA, or Canada.

I think identity has to do more with one’s upbringing than with politics.

I would like to share with you my research into the topic of identity, basically I refuse to be brain-washed by the KMT’s education.

Since you are a journalist for the Formosan TV, I think it is important to bring it to your attention.