No, that title doesn’t mean I’ll be telling you all what you should get for each other this holiday season (although I wouldn’t mind an XBox if you’re in the buying mood). Nope, this post is going to address how you should handle getting free stuff (like I got at Nintendo’s recent College Media Day) without looking like a total sell-out.
As a foreword, please note that these are my personal views and rationalizations being put forth here. Some people may be much stricter than I am on this subject. Some more lax. Your moral code may vary. No guarantee of clear conscience is expressed or implied. No refunds after 90 days. etc…
That being said, I’ve divided “the guide” into a few sections, each of which I think should be treated differently. Let’s start with:
This is probably the most important area of free stuff that video game journalists will encounter. It’s also probably the trickiest to navigate. Some people get into this business for the sole purpose of being able to swim in large bins of free games and consoles. I know it might be hard for these people, but I highly reccomend that ou don’t keep any games or consoles you didn’t pay for.
The problem with taking ownership of a game you’re given for free is that you are likely to judge it differently than a game you bought yourself or are just renting or borrowing. Regardless of how hard you try to remain objective, your mind automatically puts things that are free and that you plan to keep permanently in a different category with things that cost you money or that you are only keeping for a short time. It’s much easier to say that a game you paid nothing for is worth owning than to say the same of a game you had to spend money on.
By agreeing not to keep of the game after you’ve reviewed it, you make it that much easier to be objective about it. You still didn’t have to pay anything to play it, but you don’t get any permanent value out of it (besides the opportunity to play and review it). By not keeping the game, it’s easier to look at yourself as a detached observer rather than a game owner who has a vested interest in the game’s quality. It will be easier for your readers to look at you this way too (and the perception of integrity you give your audience is just as important as the integrity you project on yourself).
What to do with the game after you’re done reviewing it? Some newspapers and organizations will simply retain ownership of the discs, keeping them in their archives for future reference. Others give them away or sell them at fire sale prices to readers once a year (My college paper has a massive $1 per CD sale every May). If your paper or organization doesn’t want to get involved, there are plenty of good charities that will take the games (I’ll be giving my free Nintendo discs to Toys for Tots, personally.) Avoid the tempataion to sell the game to a consignment store; this will not only make you try to rush through the game to get the maximum secondhand value, but it may also give the game an artificial worth in your mind that it might not deserve.
Another tricky one. In general, you have to weigh the importance of the event to your publication and your readers against the possibility of missing the event if you don’t take the accomodations.
For example, let’s say you live in San Diego and are asked to attend a lunch conference in Los Angeles. If you own a car, you can easily make it yourself, so there’s no real risk of missing the event if you don’t take a pre-paid flight that is offered by the conference holder. In this case, I would not take the travel accomodations and get there myself.
Let’s instead say that you were expected to attend the same conference but had to travel from Massachusetts. Obviously, you can’t simply drive there. First, see if your publication would be willing to pay for the travel costs. Ethically, this is usually the preferable solution over taking a free trip from a company you are supposed to be covering objectively, but many video game publications are not able to afford such luxuries.
Next, decide whether or not the expense of travel would be an undue burden for you to take on yourself. Be honest with yourself; if it’s a $100 plane ticket and you will be making $500 for the article, it might be doable. If it’s a $1,000 ticket and you are getting no money for the article, it might be unreasonable to expect you to pay your own way.
If you’ve gotten to this point, you have to judge whether the harm to your reputation from taking a free trip is greater than the harm to your readers by not covering the event. In most cases, the harm to your reputation won’t be that great; most readers won’t fault you for accepting a free trip to a corporate headquarters or a businesses press conference, for instance. If the trip is for a wild beach bash at a private Hawaiin villa, however, the perception may not be as rosy. The beach bash might not be as crucial a story for your readers as the press conference, either (even though it would probably be more fun for you, the journalist).
The best advice I can give here is to use your best judgement based on the facts of the trip.
I’ll divide this into two sub-categories: catered events for a large group and private meals with sources. In general, I feel you should accept free food at catered events and insist on paying when meeting privately with a source.
The main difference here is whether or not you are receiving preferential treatment (or perceived as receiving such). When you are at a large, catered event with many other journalists and/or businesspeople, you aren’t being treated differently because of your stature as a journalist. Since everyone in the room is being given the same access to the food, your taking it doesn’t set you apart. While it could be argued that accepting the food sets you apart from those journalists not invited to the event, you are often there to work the room and talk with as many people as poissible. Being sociable often involves accepting the offered food or drink to avoid looking rude. On the same token, though, don’t stuff yourself with as much free food as you can stomach. Moderation in all things, of course.
With a private, one on one meal with a source, however, the situation is different. If you don’t pay here, you are allowing the source to specifically attend to your needs and allow you to get off for free. Regardless of whether or not the source was trying (and/or succeeding) in currying your favor by paying, any outside observer will definitely get the perception be that you have been unduly influenced. If you insist on paying for yourself, you can still get the information you want from the source while keeping your integrity intact.
Some very strict ethicists might refuse to accept things like an F-Zero T-shirt or a deck of Advance Wars 2 playing cards, but I am not among them. When I get a free T-shirt, all I’m thinking is that it’s one less T-shirt I have to buy. I don’t care about the comapny that paid for it, be it Nintendo, Mountain Dew, Reese’s, Dell, etc. (I have shirts from all of these, BTW). Wearing an F-Zero shirt is unlikely to influence my impressions of the F-Zero game, even if it is a very high quality shirt.
The only exception to this policy is for official press events, such as E3, or other professional journalistic events. Wearing a free, company-sponsored T-shirt to these can come off as very unproffessional. Wearing them to work can similarly make you seem like a corporate shill to your co-workers (even if you aren’t). Wait until your off day to enjoy the 100 percent cotton.
In the coming weeks I’ll put together a synopsis of my impressions of how I was treated/handled by Nintendo’s highly trained PR professionals. Until then, feel free to disagree with my rambling ethical rationalizations as much as you want in the comments thread.