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Thanks, but no thanks

September 16, 2007|by TERRY HEADLEE

In the late 1980s, I was riding in a van with the Washington County Commissioners when somebody decided to stop at a fruit market in Hancock.

County Commissioners President Ronald L. Bowers, who headed the five-member commission at that time, purchased a bag of apples and started to pass them out to everyone in the van.

He handed one to me, but I politely declined.

Bowers looked incredulous.

"Oh come on, Terry," Bowers said. "What? You think I'm trying to bribe you with an apple?"

No, I said, before mentioning something about our ethics policy, which strictly forbade the taking of gifts of any kind.

I was the county reporter at the time.

I knew it was an innocent gesture by Bowers - and I seem to recall it was around lunchtime - but that wasn't the point.

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Even riding in the van with the commissioners had been debated the day before, but editors finally decided it was OK since the board was touring western Washington County and many of their remarks and observations would be on the record. There wouldn't be any point, my editors reasoned, in following the elected board in a car when all of their comments were going to be made inside the van.

This is just one example of hundreds through the years that our newsroom reporters and photographers (and sometimes editors) have faced over the years when covering events or writing stories for the newspaper.

Our traditional, hard-line position of refusing gifts has resulted in some misunderstandings with sources and readers through the years.

It's not that we don't appreciate the acts of kindness, but ethical journalists are not for sale, and we try to avoid any appearance or perception that we are. It's really nothing more than that - even though some sources say our refusal to accept gifts is seen as arrogant, perplexing or offensive.

In recent years our ethics code has been relaxed to allow acceptance of a gift of insignificant value - say $1 or less - if declining the gift would be awkward or embarrassing.

I have accepted a glass of iced tea, soda and cookies from sources if I thought it would make them feel more comfortable during an interview at their homes.

Cookies are one thing - meals are another. This explains why our reporters generally show up just moments before a speech begins at a dinner banquet.

We also don't accept gift certificates of any kind from sources - we usually mail them back with a polite letter.

Flowers that show up at our door are donated to local nursing homes. Items that come in the mail that can't be returned without considerable expense to us are placed in a drawer and then sold at a newsroom "yard sale." All proceeds eventually are donated to local charities.

Our ethics policy also specifically states that "we do not use our positions as journalists or newsroom employees to gain personal advantages or considerations not available to the general public."

I bring this up now because we soon will be entering the holiday season (yes folks, only 99 more days to Christmas), and this historically has been the time of year when this issue becomes more prominent. The increase in the number of well-meaning gifts that sources attempt to give us seems to correlate with the holiday season.

So the next time a reporter or photographer seems a bit standoffish when you're trying to do something nice, you'll know why. We're just trying to do a job and we don't expect anything in return.

We really don't.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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