Ethics Debate Reprised: Junket Journalism Charges Again Raised as Journalists Are Offered All-Expense Paid Visit to 20th Anniversary Disney Bash

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Ethics debate reprised

Junket journalism charges again raised as journalists are offered all-expense paid visit to 20th anniversary Disney bash

It was, to borrow from Yogi Berra, like deja vu all over again.

For news organizations, the freebies were still flowing--and so was controversy--at the gigantic 20th birthday party Disney World threw for itself Sept. 28-Oct. 1 in Orlando, Fla.

Invitations of all-expense-paid trips to thousands of news organizations rekindled the ethical debate that ensued five years earlier, when Disney offered 10,000 journalists the same deal to visit its 15th anniversary bash (E&P Oct. 18, 1986).

Then, the New York Times editorialized that journalists who accepted freebies "debased" the profession and left the image that the press was "on the take"; the St. Petersburg Times said in a front-page story that the practice hearkened back to the days of "junket journalism," and other Florida papers joined the chorus of criticism.

This year, while press ethics largely disappeared from the news, NBC captured some headlines by accepting free airfare and hotel rooms for 30 staffers who broadcast the Today show live from the theme park. But under the light of public scrutiny, NBC reversed itself and agreed to reimburse the Walt Disney Co. and Delta Airlines.

A Disney spokesman declined to disclose the cost of the celebration, the identities or numbers of news organization staffers who were invited, or who attended.

(E&P's publisher, Ferdinand Teubner, attended as a non-journalist.)

"The sole purpose is to let people see the shows we offer the public, the same as they do a movie, play or sporting event," said spokesman John Dreyer. "The only way you can review a travel destination is to travel to the destination . . . You can't do it by remote."

Representatives of news organizations from 35 countries who came to the event did so according to their employers' policies on who pays, Dreyer said. Disney set no conditions.

He rejected suggestions that Disney was trying to buy good publicity.

"I don't think any journalist will say it's a good show if they don't believe it," he said. "His credibility, to be accurate, is more valuable to him than a free trip."

However, NBC, which broadcast that it had accepted free services, issued a statement a week later saying the anniversary was not "hard news or journalistically significant," but the Today show, produced by its entertainment division, would conform to its news division's guidelines and pay its expenses "to avoid even the appearance of conflict or compromise."

Freebies

The Disney anniversary highlights a long-standing ethical dispute over what journalists or other employees of news organizations should accept from businesses they cover.

Reporters--who are routinely offered cocktails, meals, sample products and trips--just as routinely debate whether their objectivity is--or is perceived to be--affected. And what about non-journalists employed by news organizations who benefit materially from news sources?

While most papers limit what journalists may receive--some have even begun to pay for such traditional freebies as tickets to sports and entertainment events--many papers, especially small ones, have few rules. Nonetheless, freebies are being viewed with increasing skepticism as journalism expands the bounds of inquiry into personal dealings of public figures.

"I have difficulty seeing how you can be seen as objective . . . if they provide you transportation to party at their complex," said Bill Winter, director of the American Press Institute.

A school for newspaper journalists and business managers in Reston, Va., API, advises as a rule to avoid freebies.

"It's difficult to defend taking anything from an organization you may end up covering," Winter said. "When you take goods and services, you receive personal benefit . …

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