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Free.

That is such a touchy word. And it can be dangerous for a journalist.

I, along with most people I know, learned at a very early age nothing in life can ever truly be free.

It is something people just come to accept. But what does it really mean?

In economics class a couple semesters ago, my professor tried to explain it away. Everything is some sort of tradeoff.

It may not cost money, but one thing is being given up for another.

OK, that quantifies the idea of free a little bit. It means everything has some sort of value.

For journalists, though, it doesn’t end there. We have to approach it from an ethical aspect.

Obviously, we get paid by our employers just like any other worker does.

But, situations arise often when a writer is offered some sort of gift by a source, by an organization or by the community in general.

While that sounds enticing, we must turn our heads. It is not because we are too good for that.

Trust me, if you look at the average salary of a journalist, you would think we’re crazy not to beg for everything we can get.

Instead, it is accepted by writers across the globe that taking any sort of endowment crosses the line. It casts a heavy shadow on that shiny technique we call being unbiased.

I have actually come across this ideological roadblock twice within the past month.

The more recent involved me directly. I was conducting an interview with the director of the local golf course in order to write an article regarding the 30th anniversary of the course.

After the interview was over, I talked with him about how I played golf in high school and have played a few rounds on his course.

Since they have installed new greens, the director offered me two vouchers for free rounds of golf.

The golfer on my right shoulder told me to take them and start swinging my clubs.

The journalist in my head told me to secretly hang my head and sigh, saying thanks but I can’t take them.

I have come to accept it and even embrace it. Professionalism outweighs the inner athlete and love of sports I foster within.

That brings me to the second situation. I recently read an article published by the University of Kentucky regarding sports journalist and free food at games.

Essentially, the column said if journalists are going to live and die by the hard rule of no freebies, that includes not accepting a free meal at games.

I really thought about this article for a while. I understand the thoughts behind the idea, but I disagree with the application.

The writer explained that accepting the food is basically the same as being paid by the organization in return for coverage.

Hence, it eliminates the true meaning of unbiased reporting.

I think this is a legitimate concern, but too much of a stretch.

My writer and I eat a meal at every football game we cover. I don’t go to the game for the meal. I go for the sport.

The meal is just out of kindness and respect, in my opinion.

So yeah, the meal is free. It is not recompense for coverage.

I can’t speak for others, but I do not change my writing based on whether or not I get fed.

Some chips and a drink don’t cloud my eyes and mind with niceties about the team who provides the catering.

So no, it is not unethical to me.

But ethical lines can get blurry in journalism. It’s up to us to make the call, to err on the safe side.

It may not be illegal, but we have to watch ourselves.

Maybe someday, someone will convince me to ignore the food and just report on an empty stomach.

For now, I am just going to think about it while I sit here and eat my free sandwich.

 

Column by Ryan Richardson, Sports Editor