Let's begin with an assumption: You contact a restaurant owner about writing a review about his restaurant for publication. And, let's also say that you're on a, umm, "tight" budget. When you get to the restaurant, the owner volunteers to "comp" you a meal featuring some of their signature entrees. You're delighted.
Question: Is that ethical?
Here's my take on the subject after more than half a century of writing reviews on everything from restaurants to luxury resorts. If a restaurant owner (or anyone) pays you in the form of a free meal to write a review about them and you accept the gratuity, you can't in good conscience write a review for publication without revealing that fact to a publisher. To do otherwise would constitute at least the appearance of pay-to-play. And, you simply can't do that in the world of "journalistic integrity."
Now, if you want to run your review past the New York Times or The Washington Post, I wouldn't worry too much about journalistic integrity. The editors there haven't heeded that concept for decades. And I speak from experience as a former columnist for The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, and many others for years. But that was eons ago when a publication's integrity and impartiality were paramount. Today, they're little more than tantamount—to sales. Everything else, it seems, takes a back seat.
And, things are even worse in mainstream electronic journalism, sad to say, where ratings rule the roost, and the talking heads masquerading as journalists at CNN, MSNBC, and elsewhere are paid by the amount of controversy they stir up and the number of partisan talking points they can parrot. At any cost to their integrity.
But, if you're serious about peddling that review legitimately, you have an ethical obligation to advise potential publishers of the facts. All the facts. If you don't … well, there are always those two newspapers I mentioned earlier, plus about a thousand others just like them, who probably wouldn't care one way or the other.
My advice to any serious journalist going forward, then, is simple. If you hope to become an impartial and respected reporter, never accept any kind of gratuity while working as a reviewer—not even a stick of gum. Doing so will always come back to bite you in the butt.
If you don't really care about becoming a respected journalist, that's another matter entirely.
What all this boils down to is a matter of "ethics." Which means doing the right thing at the right time for the proper reason always. Of course, that's only my take on it. But, what else would you expect from the author of a weekly column called The Author-Ethicist.
Smoke if you've got 'em.
* * *
D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.