Ethics questions for media attending Republican convention kick-off party

08/22/12 Janelle Irwin
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Some experts in media ethics are wondering if it’s appropriate that some 15,000 journalists will be wined and dined at a kick-off event for the Republican National Convention in St. Petersburg on Sunday. Kelly McBride, senior faculty at the Poynter Institute, said journalists who go might give the public the wrong impression.

“Most independent newsrooms have a policy that says you cannot take freebies from sources that you intend to cover because it could compromise your independence or lead to the perception that your independence is compromised.”

The Tampa Bay Host Committee is paying for the welcome party with funds raised for the convention.

“But it used to be that in most cases, the local newspaper or some other media organization hosted the kick-off party.”

When it was one bunch of journalists treating another group to hors d’voeuvres and cocktails, McBride said that wasn’t a big deal. But the group footing this bill is showcasing both the Tampa Bay area and the Republican Convention the journalists will be covering. Media parties at political conventions aren’t uncommon. That’s why McBride says many journalists and their employers aren’t questioning whether a fancy soirée in their honor is kosher.

“I don’t think a lot of newsrooms – because the kick-off party itself is this time honored tradition – I don’t think a lot of newsrooms have grappled with the fact that the people footing the bill have changed.”

But Peter Hart, activism director for the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting said the details about who’s paying for what and who benefits is something that should be reported.

“Don’t just write off the unseemly wining and dining of elected officials by corporate interests as the way the game is played, tell people about what’s happening. If you have a television or a radio or a newspaper platform, let people know that this is what happens at these political conventions.”

Hart said political conventions are notorious for and expected to be a hot spot for political lobbying.

“This kind of party turns that kind of equation around in that the lobbying or the impressing is directed not at elected officials necessarily, but at members of the media.”

A journalist could still go to the party with a clean nose. Sure the Host Committee is providing food and drinks, but that doesn’t mean reporters have to accept it. The Poynter Institute’s McBride said there are some instances when it could be OK to eat a little something from a free buffet and not look like a sell out.

“One of the questions that you should ask yourself is, do I need this to do my job? So, when you’re at the press box at the baseball game, it’s a long game and you may actually need the food to get the job done because you can’t necessarily leave and go shopping for food or something like that.”

But with this event, McBride said she’s not sure there’s even much of a job to be done.

“I’m not sure how much work the journalists are going to get done during the party. If they’re going to be able to network with sources – maybe there’s a little bit of work, but I’m not sure that there’s a huge journalistic value in attending the kick-off party.”

Deni Elliot chairs the Department of Journalism and Media studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She disagrees.

“From a journalist point of view, it seems to me that it’s an opportunity to have a chance to meet with delegates, to get some quotes, to talk to some people who otherwise might not be as easily accessible later in the convention.”

McBride from the Poynter Institute said she’s not convinced it’s unethical for journalists to go to the party even if they eat. But she does have a problem with the booze-factor.

“When someone is buying you alcohol, I think that’s a whole ‘nother level of question because – I mean, there are journalists who would argue with me – but, you do not need alcohol to do your job. You can actually get your job done without a drink. So then I think that when you’re looking at a cocktail party, you’re in a whole other realm of ethical questionability.”

The media and delegate party will be Sunday evening inside the stadium where the Tampa Bay Rays play. Outside the Trop, groups of protesters are planning demonstrations opposing Republican policies. The City of St. Petersburg has established an event zone around Tropicana Field where protesters and on-lookers will be banned from carrying certain items. A similar ordinance is in place in Tampa for the convention.

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