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(No) thank you.

 When I was in journalism class, my teacher cautioned us against accepting any kind of gift, as this might mar our journalistic integrity. Regardless of whether you actually allow sources to influence your editorial slant by giving you a gift, receiving a gift tells other journalists that you are open to compromise, and that will affect your image as a media practitioner. It's not just money, by the way. Reporters refuse food, drinks, loot bags, etc. at press conferences and other gatherings because they consider these gifts, too.

As a Special Features writer, however, I find that the lines are not so clear-cut. My writing is occasioned not by current events or exciting stories, but by advertising. People pay to place ads in our paper, and I write related articles to go around the ads. The account manager who secures the ad contracts, not an editor, sets the general topic or title. So, if a bunch of car companies are advertising in Special Features next week, I have to write a motoring article.

Often, my editor still sets the more specific topic--"The AM wants an SF on postpaid plans? Okay, you write about existing plans and their perks, you write about loyalty rewards, and you write about the best plans for executives and entrepreneurs." So, we churn out articles in the usual fashion, as one might articles for any other section of the paper. An SF supplement is more like a magazine than a regular newspaper in the sense that each "issue" has a unifying theme.

Occasionally, however, the AM has an especially narrow topic, and the advertisers are the same people who hold the expertise/experience that you need for your article.

Once, we had an SF on successful executives who were alumni of a particular school, printed in time for that school's foundation anniversary. I had to write a profile of the head of a manufacturing company. The catch was, the same company was advertising in the supplement. I went to the man's office to interview him, and he served me tea and gave me product samples on my way out the door.

As I walked away from the company premises to catch a jeepney to my next destination, it occured to me that to a reporter, the tea and product samples would constitute a gift. Did I just damage my journalistic integrity?

Well, I had accepted the tea and samples not just out of common politeness, but also out of the vague worry that a refusal might violate some social convention (my interviewee was Chinese). Second, I had also been assigned to write his company's advertorial, which would be about their various products, so the samples had something to do with what I was about to write. Third, maybe he was just being nice. During the interview, he was careful and guarded with his answers, but he was also honest. There was never a point at which I felt pressured to portray him a certain way.

In fact, I can say that about the nearly six months that I've been flashing this newspaper's employee ID. I can count the occasions in which I interviewed advertisers on one hand, and I never felt influenced by them when writing my articles. My fellow SF writers produce balanced pieces, too. But I can still see how an ethics issue might come about.

I've already explained to you the basic workings of Special Features. To make it clear, I am not a reporter; I am an SF writer. Reporters are under Editorial. Special Features is under Marketing. In effect, advertisers pay my salary. And one day, an advertiser might take this to mean that I should include them in my main article and put a halo over their heads.

For instance, we're about to come out with an SF on "Cosmopolitan Living." On Monday, I will interview someone from a real estate company for an advertorial to appear in this supplement. I will also write the lead article, and because I don't know many bigwigs in real estate (my uncle maybe, but tapping him as a source is an ethics issue, too), I might have to use quotes from the advertorial interview. In fact, the AM's e-mail to the real estate people tells them that the interview is for the lead article, too. This is not the first time he's told advertisers this.

I admire my SF editor for standing up for our immunity from advertisers' influence. She has always told us that we are not obligated to even mention the advertisers in our articles, we can only quote advertisers if they say something relevant to the topic, we are free to pursue whatever angles we want, and we must be balanced. Knowing that she has held this stand consistently (whenever a writer or AM says that an advertiser is complaining about their inclusion/non-inclusion in an article) gives me both confidence and motivation to be fair in my coverage. The ads may determine what I write about, but they don't determine what I write.

That said, it's my call when it comes to accepting so-called gifts. Free swag is sweet (that tea was some of the best I've ever had). It can even be relevant in the case of the advertorials we have to write every now and then (a pizza restaurant once hosted me in a food tasting because I was writing about their holiday menu). And sometimes, people are just being nice.

I know well enough to turn down anything that gives off a bribe vibe. What I want to know is, is all the other stuff okay? A fellow SF writer said, again, that it's my call.

What do you think? Does not being an official reporter exempt me from holding to the same no-gifts-whatsoever standards that some official reporters uphold? Will the fact that I'm in Marketing and not Editorial protect me from whatever image-tarnishing there may be in accepting a gift? What effect would accepting gifts as an SF writer have on my image if I were to become a reporter later on? What standards of journalistic integrity are expected of newspaper writers whose topics are determined by the ads?

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