Friday, September 08, 2006

Develop a personal code of freebie ethics

PJs must develop their own personal code of ethics about freebies (food, promotional items and other gifts). Each code is as unique as each PJ. Most personal codes fit within the NPPA code of ethics. Others don't.

Often, an employer dictates acceptable practices of its employees. These guidelines are located in the employee manual or are explained to new hires. Freelancers must often adjust their practices per client.

In every case, these are minimum ethical boundaries. If PJs choose to operate with a much higher boundary, they can. High ethical behavior easily falls within corporate overarching guides. In the end, PJs must admire what they see in the mirror. If they don't, how could anyone else?

Personal ethical points to consider about freebies:
When should I pay for items?
When should I refuse items?
When should I accept items?
When should I donate items?
Who typically gets this item?
Who is harmed?
Who benefits?
How can I politely explain my ethical code to the subject?
Is this code reasonable?

PJs who know the answers to all these questions are in good shape. PJs who don't know the answers probably need to read this long-winded post.

Advice for amateurs
This information is meant for working pro PJs. Amateurs are welcome to do whatever they like about freebies, but it would be nice if y'all could follow these guidelines as well to take some heat off the working pros.

I'm too strict
Folks who've read "What is a PJ?" know I don't accept anything other than paperwork and access on assignments. This is my personal policy and is in keeping with the NPPA code of ethics. However, my personal code is probably too strict. Consequently, I don't expect other PJs to follow this example. But, I do expect some restraint.

For complete disclosure, I did accept a cup of coffee during a frozen playoff football game and a bottle of water during a S.W.A.T. standoff early in my career. I tried to pay for them, but neither would accept the money. So, there are my violations. I still feel bad about them.

Cultural norms
Yes, there are extreme cases where someone might want something (a flattering story, a biz plug, whatever) in exchange for kindness, but - at least in the South - folks frequently offer refreshments to anyone invited into a home or business. It's part of the culture.

We offer water and lemonade to the postal carriers, we offer a soda to the cable installer, etc. It's considered proper etiquette.

This is common in other cultures throughout the world as well. In many cultures, it's considered an insult to turn down these kind offers. However, if we can honestly say we never accept anything, it negates most perceptions of being slighted.

Why not accept freebies?
I'm often offered freebies at the events while on duty. I politely thank the person offering and decline. Sometimes they'll insist. Then, I politely say, "I'm not allowed."

If they're really persistent, I'll explain that I don't accept anything but access and paperwork because it has to do with a code of ethics. I often follow this up by explaining that Americans eat as much during one meal as an entire overseas family. If we're in the habit of accepting food in America, we might do so overseas and inadvertently leave a family without food because of their generosity.

Almost everyone accepts this explanation.

Although this is true, it sidesteps the real reason many of us don't accept anything. PJs are workers. We aren't guests. Furthermore, we would rarely be at these locations if we weren't working. Consequently, we wouldn't be offered treats if we weren't PJs.

The underlying issue is that if we wish to be a "fly on the wall," we can't be a fly at the table. The camera may have been invited to the event - not the particular person holding the camera. If the PJ is holding a sandwich instead of a camera, not much work is being done. This defeats the entire purpose of the PJ being at the location.

Pay for food
When PJs are on assignment, they pay for food. Technically, the publisher pays. Staffers turn in receipts after paying and are reimbursed. All legitimate newspapers reimburse editorial staff members for work-related meals. If a receipt is turned in, the company writes off the meal on its taxes. It's part of the biz.

If a PJ is famished and must eat (after shooting), do so. But, pay for it and get a receipt. However, know the exact company policy to guaranty reimbursement.

For young PJs, this can be a hardship. New PJs are notoriously underpaid. Consequently, they frequently don't have the cash for the meal, nor the time to wait for reimbursement. In either case, it's simply easier to decline to eat.

Freelancers sometimes get reimbursed. More often, the cost is passed along to the client through the PJ's fee and the freelance PJ takes the deduction at the end of the year.

What if they won't accept payment?
Offer to pay before accepting anything. If the host won't accept payment, explain the company's policy ("I'll get reimbursed") or very politely decline.

This plan, unfortunately, creates a perception problem in some cultures. Basically, the PJ could appear arrogant by offering to pay. Then, the PJ could appear more arrogant by refusing afterward. It's a lose/lose situation, which could have been avoided if the PJ wasn't tempted to accept anything while on assignment or completely understands the culture being covered.

What about other gifts?
Other gifts have the same problems. It's simply easiest to decline everything, but some PJs might offer to purchase some gifts/products.

Although it's easy to say turn it down, some subjects can make it tough. The following is my toughest example.

Large media outlets send their employees to the Olympics with pins to exchange and present to other folks. These pins create good will and possibly generate some brand recognition. All major newspaper and television shooters fill their pockets with these pins and hand them out freely.

Many years ago, I photographed a retired television innovator. He won many Emmy Awards for his technical wizardry during every televised Olympic for decades. As such, he had large boxes of every company pin from the time television began covering the Olympics.

He offered me one of each.

To this day, it was the hardest gift to turn down. I would have absolutely loved to have those pins. However, if I wasn't there to make a portrait, he wouldn't have offered the pins to me.

Yes, I could have easily rationalized accepting the pins. But, I don't feel bad for declining. OK, maybe a little bad, but I can sleep at night.

A reasonable guide
We've already established my code is too extreme. So, what's a reasonable guideline?

Most publications are OK with the $10 rule. If the gift or meal costs less than $10, it's fine to accept it. This is considered a token amount. Nobody could expect some concession from a working journalist in return for such a small amount.

I was discussing this recently with a co-worker. At a previous job in Washington D.C., her editor asked if her integrity could be purchased with a $5 bagel. She said no. The editor told her it was OK for her to eat a bagel then.

Access exceptions
PJs need access and information. If we can't see something, we can't shoot it. So, access is a legitimate request.

Although we've established folks don't typically expect anything in return for a token offer, some folks have no problem trying to get concessions via an access ploy. If an event organizer charges $11 for a ticket, then - this ploy holds - PJs have broken the $10 rule and should give free prints or some other concession.

The problem with this ploy is simple. Access costs the event organizer nothing extra for the PJ to be present. No merchandise or raw materials change hands. If the event organizer doesn't want to allow access without charge, the event won't be covered. End of story.

However, some organizers still push for some concession - particularly if access is granted to a concert where tickets cost more than $200. The rebuttal is equally easy. A publication pays about $400 for each shoot a PJ does (calculate pay, mileage, insurance, support staff, etc.). In other words, the publication is paying more than the entry fee to acquire images for its readers/viewers. Also, PJs are only there for the first two songs. This is yet another reason to never sign access contracts.

Paid admission
Most working pros don't pay admission to events. We are there to photograph the event for a publication and leave.

However, sometimes we're required to pay for access to events. In these cases, PJs have the same rights as all other paying guests. If other paying guests get free food or gifts as part of their admission cost, so could the PJ.

However, it's still probably best to apply normal operating ethics in these circumstances. Although the PJ is completely justified in accepting the same benefits as other patrons, some observers may get the wrong perception because they don't know the PJ paid admission. Consequently, observers might think PJs got in free and are gobbling up all the shrimp (or whatever) for free. It's not true, but it isn't the perception PJs want readers to have.

Review materials
Although a book, CD or video might seem like a gift, publicity agents provide these as access for reviewers. If a reviewer doesn't have access to the book, they won't review it unless the book is of personal interest to the reviewer. A book titled "Crochet for Kittens" wouldn't be high on anyone's "must read" list.

After the review, some publications immediately donate these items to public libraries. However, most pubs come to reasonable compromises.

The most common compromise allows the reviewer to keep the reviewed item in exchange for the work of the reviewer. It's considered motivation to provide content. The second most common compromise is a company auction or sale of review items to raise funds for charity (this often happens around the winter holidays).

Unsolicited gifts
Occasionally, folks mail or courier gifts to PJs. This creates problems because there's no way to refuse the gift (we don't know what's in the pouch or box until it's open).

Typically, if the gift falls under the $10 limit, most PJs can keep the gift (think candy or promotional products). If the gift is outrageous (think jewelry), it should be returned. Most newspapers pay to return such gifts - no matter its value.

Ironically, since the anthrax murders several years ago, most packages and envelopes are initially opened by mailroom personnel offsite. If jewelry did fall from a package, I honestly wouldn't expect it to make it to the newsroom. ;-}

Newspapers also allow these unsolicited gifts to be donated to charity. Since the PJ isn't keeping it, it's simply a gift from the donor to a women's shelter or an orphanage. Often, publications have a collection box for such items and deliver them around holidays.

What if a client offers freebies?
On special nights (elections, holidays, etc.), newsroom managers often provide catered meals or pizza. Staff and freelance PJs are often invited to partake. Then, they descend like locusts and devour everything in site. This is considered part of a PJ's payment because the company paid for the food.

Feel free to indulge in anything offered by an employing media company and/or active client. If a client offers food or other gifts, these are considered payment. If a PJ is doing a freelance food photography gig and the client offers a snack during the shoot, have at it.

Sometimes PJs meet with clients (or art buyers) to finalize a purchase. If the client offers to pick up the tab for the meal, let them. As in all the cases above, the meal is part of the purchase price. The final tab for a one-year lease of an image is $1,200, a hamburger, fries and a beer.

Likewise, when a PJ is hired as a consultant or voluntarily mentors another photographer, this is considered a client/provider relationship. The PJ is the information provider while the receiver of the information is the client. So, PJs in this situation can accept a burger, beer or payment.

Gifts are the same. Keep the toys, T-shirts and other promotional items. Your client wants to get their name in front of the public. If a client wants to give a shooter a shiny new car (don't expect it), smile, say thanks and take the keys. It's all part of payment.

But wait a minute, who paid for the car? If it's the client, the car is yours. If it's a car dealer, hand back the keys (see below). Darn.

Does this include the ad department?
Depending on the size of a publication, PJs are often invited to advertising department functions. Although a fine spread may be offered at these events, it's important to find out who paid for the food. If it was provided by the company, I walk away full. If it was provided by ad clients, I'll normally pass.

Even though the food is in the building, how it got there is important. On the SE Texas wineries shoot, I gobbled up some fruit when I was done (the company paid for it). However, all the wines were returned to the ad department (wines were not purchased by the company).

I suppose other PJs might have considered the wines "access." As I said, my personal code is too strict - particularly since I love wine.

Gray areas
As with most things in life, there isn't a black and white answer to ethical decisions. PJs must live with their own personal code. However, if there is no way to justify your actions other than personal benefit, it's probably wrong.

It's wise to ask other PJs or professors for guidance or explanation before being placed in these situations. Otherwise, the PJ doesn't know what to do and could make a regrettable mistake.

One problem area for me early in my career was restaurant reviews. The idea of asking folks to prepare a $50 dish for a photo seemed wrong. However, it falls under "access." The restaurant's participation is completely voluntary. They could say no to the presentation and PJs simply shoot the building exterior and are on their way.

In other words, it's to the restaurant's advantage to provide the plated meal for the photo. They more than make up the cost of the meal with the publicity a fine food photo provides. Additionally, either a restaurant guest or worker gets an entree or appetizer on the house.

The PJ shoots the meal and returns it. What happens to the meal afterward isn't the PJ's concern.

However, this approach can also backfire. I had a shoot where eye protection was required to get onto the shop floor. The company provided safety glasses so I could complete the shoot. When I tried to return the glasses, I was told to keep them because nobody would wear used glasses (each day all workers get new glasses).

Again, I tried to return the glasses. The floor manager said it's OK to keep them because they only cost $1.99. On my way out, I gave $2 to the office secretary for the glasses. Now I have safety glasses and won't need to pay next time.

The point is that sometimes PJs must pay for things they don't particularly want and claim the expense when they get back to the office. It's often means unwanted paperwork, but PJs walk away with their ethical code upheld.

Collecting "trash"
During parades and similar events. Float riders typically pitch candy and trinkets to the crowd along the route. Being large targets, PJs typically have more than a customary amount of erasers, beads and hard candy thrown at them by varsity baseball pitchers.

Typically, I try to dodge the projectiles and shoot the parade. If some beads get caught on my camera strap, I'll hand them to the closest small kid. However, when I'm walking back to my car along the parade route, I'll encounter leftovers from the parade in the grass or dangling from bushes.

After the first parade, I left these items since I "wasn't there." However, all it took was seeing a street cleaner suck all the extra beads, candy and coins into the trash before I realized I'd actually be doing more good than harm by collecting rejected "trash" along the route. So, if a PJ sees some beads or other parade favors on their way to the car, it's best to find a kid for it, but it's also OK to keep the "trash."

Be reasonable
If a family member, friend or peer offers a PJ a gift, they (probably) don't expect anything in return. These gifts and countless other promotional products are offered to the person who happens to be a PJ - not vice versa.

The key to this situation is defining who are the PJ's friends and relatives. It sounds easy enough. A pleasant PJ might think, "Everyone I meet is my friend." That's nice, but it's not practical.

Locally, I define "friend" as anyone who has invited me to their home for a party (without the camera), or I've invited to my home. I define "relative" out to one generation (cousins and closer). Peers are anyone in the industry.

If most PJs stick with this, they'll be fine (unfortunately, they may realize how few friends they actually have). If any of these folks offer a gift, it's fine to accept in most cases.

Define "off duty"
Unless PJs are at a huge paper or magazine, they're never completely "off duty." However, there needs to be some reasonable limits. Without limits, PJs essentially surrender all the rights and liberties they protect. Not good.

The two best ways to determine "off duty" are time of day and location. If it's 3 a.m. and the PJ's shift ended at 8 p.m., s/he's off duty. If PJs go into a grocery store without their cameras to purchase a soda, they're off duty.

This may sound like nitpicking, but consider the following scenario:   A PJ goes into a grocery store for a soda. They see the freebie cookies every shopper is offered. They can have one. Then, the office calls and says they need a photo of the cookie baker. The PJ returns to the car, grabs the rig and goes into the store to get images. This time, the PJ can't eat any cookies because they are working.

The obvious loophole could be easily exploited. Take the shot, drop the rig in the car and return for cookies. This is ethically lame.

In these cases, I use a 24-hour rule. Once I've shot somewhere, I leave for 24 hours before I can return to the shop and be considered "off duty."

Admittedly, there are times this really sucks. A gas company handed out free $10 gas cards to folks in hurricane-affected areas. The people handing out the cards were giving them to everyone who strolled past.

I'm a resident in the area, so I could have gotten one. However, I was working, so I couldn't. Some PJs could've used the loophole. They could've gotten the card and THEN gotten their rig. Again, my code is too strict.

Avoiding harm
Most religions have some version of "An it harm none, do as ye will" or "Do unto others as you would have done to you." This is good, general advice.

PJs are often placed in areas where their actions may create unknown harm to others. If we eat a meal, will others do without? If we accept a gift, will the subject go out of business? Although these questions are more akin to The Butterfly Effect, they are questions PJs must answer before they are placed in these situations.

This issue becomes the sharpest thorn while covering criminal cases. Since we are only discussing gifts today, let's table the criminal discussion for another day. Instead, let's agree to say no freebie is worth inflicting harm on others.

Emergency situations
Emergency situations are by far the hardest and most critical times for a PJ to know their own code. When everything has been destroyed for miles, it's not the time for PJs to wonder about their own code of ethics.

Governmental agencies, the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations often deploy to give help after a disaster. These entities often provide food, water, clothes, shelter and other essential survival items.

Since these are the most newsworthy events, it's reasonable to expect PJs throughout the area. Likewise, it's reasonable for PJs to possibly move from visual reporter to victim during these times.

The first ethical question in this situation is whether PJs are in the area voluntarily or reluctantly. If PJs willingly enter a natural disaster area (wildfire, hurricane, earthquake or similar emergency), they must take responsibility for their own needs before arriving.

If PJs are in the epicenter of a disaster solely as a result of geography, it's reasonable to suspend the food part of a PJ's ethical code. Delay it as long as possible, but if affected PJs need water, it's OK to accept it.

This situation highlights the ethical dilemma of disaster coverage. It also helps distinguish a PJ's role. When all essential needs are in short supply, is the PJ a parasite, provider or neutral?

Obviously, it's best to be neutral whenever possible. The PJ reports on the story without adding or taking from the area's limited supplies. If the PJ is a local resident, they're also neutral to accept supplies offered to local residents. They are as much a victim as everyone else.

However, if a PJ from some small town in North Dakota goes to Miami to cover a hurricane, they must - at the very least - be neutral or (better) provide help to anyone who needs it.

Likewise, if PJs' supplies run out, it's time to leave the disaster area. If the area is only beginning to recover, draining the recovery effort of supplies harms the community.

Personal situation
I covered hurricanes Rita and Katrina from both situations. For Rita, we were hit. For Katrina, I went to the area.

Because hurricanes give a warning, it's easier to stock up before the disaster strikes. Having done so for both hurricanes, I was able to survive and help others with any extra supplies.

I never needed or wanted to accept supplies from aid agencies. In my mind, those supplies are for the area's poorest victims. It would've been a grave disservice during Katrina. During Rita, it would've been justifiable, but I couldn't do it.

However, after the area has started to recover, it becomes important to support the local economy while on assignment. Pay and eat a meal at the local mobile cafes. The cost is written off by the PJ, but any small profit in the area allows the economy to begin moving again.

Enough for now,


CarmenSisson said...

This is my ethical code as well. Sometimes it does feel too strict, especially in the South.

I have very, very occasionally accepted a Coke, bottle of water, or glass of tea if a). I've refused twice and the person offering seems on the verge of being offended and b). In cases where I was truly, truly thirsty. I accepted a cup of ice cold Gatorade at a very hot football game last Friday, and realized then that the way out of this is to always carry a bottle of water/Gatorade with me in my bag so that when I'm offered (or when I really need it) I can pull it out.

The parties are sometimes the hardest because the food is often very beautiful and sometimes very tempting when you're going home to Ramen noodles. Again.

I sometimes tell people I'm not allowed to accept anything, but most of the time here in Alabama that seems to confuse people and invite them to "help" me cheat the rules. So these days, I usually make a brief joke to the effect of "No sooner would I have that slice of pizza in my hand than my shot would happen and I'd miss it. Thanks anyway!" And then I walk away.

Over the course of my career, I have accepted very few things, and I can't remember a single thing I wish I had gotten but didn't. It's sometimes frustrating to see colleagues with less strict codes though.

But you're right. I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of the night, and that's all I care about really. Besides that, I don't like being manipulated, and people would be surprised how easily a Coke can become a trade-off for your soul. Sound extreme? It's not. I've seen it in action. My soul's not for sale, at any price.

SingingSkies said...

Too strict? I'm not a PJ, but in an era where the technology exists to so easily modify the visual record, I appreciate PJ's who operate with such integrity. Someone who's so scrupulous about not accepting anything on the job is someone I can trust to not falsify their work. Thank you for being willing to accept such a challenge .... and for sharing your excellent work with us.

Unknown said...

We all live by our principles.

Yours might be strict but i think they are the safest.