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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003


Newsroom ethics policy forbids acceptance of holiday gifts

By Jim Kelly

There was a time when gifts flowed freely into newsrooms before the holidays. Smoked salmon and sausage logs and monstrous cheese balls, cookies, chocolates, tchotchkes, gift certificates, movie passes, daily planners, tote bags, hats, poinsettias and even the occasional tasteful crystal Christmas ornament. They came mostly from public relations firms, local companies, community organizations, public officials and other people we covered. When I worked in Massachusetts, the gaudiest gifts and cheesiest cheese balls always seemed to come from the sketchiest public officials, and I could never figure out why people we hounded in news columns and on the editorial page bestowed warmest holiday greetings on our families. Sometimes even the cops sent us stuff.

Old-timers in the business remember the days when a quart of liquor or a case of beer or a box of fancy cigars would get dropped off on Christmas Eve by some newsmaker's lackey, along with an unctuous card ("Looking forward to working with you in '72!"). Most staffers looked the other way, but a few shared in the spoils. Every once in a while some new guy would give a stern lecture about ethics and dump the stuff in the trash.

Most respectable newspapers got serious about derailing the holiday gift train a long time ago. The Advertiser has had a written policy prohibiting the acceptance of gifts for nearly 30 years, and this has been reinforced by a strict code of ethics developed by our parent company, Gannett.

In Hawai'i, generosity and gift-giving are parts of everyday life, and staff members are often faced with the uncomfortable dilemma of declining presents from well-meaning people who are trying to show aloha, not influence the news. Having a clear policy that forbids the acceptance of gifts makes it somewhat easier to say no, though we aren't so ungracious that we would reject a pan of brownies from that tutu whose family we wrote about.

A passage from the 1988 version of our newsroom ethics policy that was developed by members of our staff sums up why we don't accept gifts: "While giving and receiving such gifts, especially during the holidays, is common and generally innocent, the practice may be misconstrued and become embarrassing to both the giver and receiver."

We realize it's not practical to ban every conceivable trinket that could find its way into a newsroom, so we don't worry too much about items of small value, such as a calendar or key chain. However, if the number of small gifts from the same source starts to add up, we ask that they be returned, with an explanation of our policy.

In many cases, gifts are easy enough to decline and return to the sender. In the case of food or other consumables, we donate the item to a charity or food bank that can quickly get them to the needy.

And when we receive items that would be impractical to return — for example, we receive hundreds of books and CDs each year from publishers and producers hoping we will review them — we donate them to a library or auction them off in the newsroom and give the proceeds to Aloha United Way or The Advertiser Christmas Fund.

I've never known a journalist who was influenced by a gift. No matter how big the cheese ball, reporters still asked the tough questions of people making news. But it's a question of credibility. So when we say no thanks, please understand we're not being rude.

• • •

Messing with the comics page is perilous business, and we've gotten an earful from more than 100 readers who are unhappy Prince Valiant was exiled on Nov. 23 to make room for the return of the popular Opus strip by Berkeley Breathed. Many people who called or wrote said they'd been reading Prince Valiant for years.

For many, the attractions of Prince Valiant are its continuing story line, intricate plot and powerful artwork. As David Swift, a professor in the University of Hawai'i system, wrote: "Each episode is so tightly crafted that I reread it, while most other 'comics' are so inane I can't even force myself to read through them once."

I used to be a faithful reader of Prince Valiant, but I've found myself skimming or skipping it in recent years, so I didn't put up much of a fight when we discussed dropping it. We're still reviewing the response to several new strips we installed during the summer and it's possible — possible — we will make adjustments that could see the return of the prince and his colorful battles.

Jim Kelly is executive editor of The Advertiser. Reach him at 525-8094 or jkelly@honoluluadvertiser.com.