A Race for Freebies  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   April 2003

A Race for Freebies   

A media trip to the Daytona 500 shows that things might have gone a tad too far when it comes to free goodies for reporters.

By Rich McKay
McKay is an Orlando Sentinel reporter.     


Free Shop-Vacs!

If you were a member of the press corps covering the Daytona 500 Winston Cup Race this year, all you had to do was show your press credential, fill out a postcard and Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, one race car's sponsor, promised to send--to your door--a one-gallon Shop-Vac, a rugged vacuum that sucks up both wet and dry items.

It's their way of thanking the press for...well, I'm not sure what they're thanking us for. Good spelling?

It wasn't just Shop-Vacs. In the media room there were packs of Winston cigarettes--premium first-cut tobacco, the "Evolved Rich Blend," whatever that means. The Cheerios people gave away little cars. Domino's brought in pizzas. It took three stores working overnight to provide lunch for the media.

The best lunch during the week of races was when the folks at Americrown cooked up lemon pepper chicken and scalloped potatoes. Your choice of apple or cherry pie for dessert. Thirsty journalists chose from Aquafina bottles of water, five flavors of Gatorade, and Pepsi--lots of Pepsi.

Of course most newspapers and media outlets have strict ethics policies that forbid taking gifts, with some flexibility on food, as long as you don't appear to be wined and dined. But a Shop-Vac--that's way over the top. And it was promised that it would be loaded up with other Lowe's goodies like batteries and such.

Whether a Shop-Vac or any other freebie would make a reporter slant a story isn't the point, or at least the whole point. We're supposed to be independent. A free press. No strings to anyone. But so much for that--reporters snapped up those tools like greedy kids let loose on an unwatched bowl of Halloween candy. A wink and a nod. An everyone's-doing-it-so-it's-OK attitude prevailed.

No one owned up to Shop-Vac fever when I started scribbling down notes for AJR. You'd think I was giving away homeland security secrets to Osama. In the corporate world, giveaways prevail. In the media world, no one can take anything. I'm assuming the swag junkies didn't want the embarrassment. For some, it could mean their jobs.

Keith Woods, a media ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, says that Lowe's isn't doing anything wrong by giving things away. That's its business. "It's not all about bribery, it's building goodwill," Woods says. "And it would be nice if the reporters remember Lowe's and their race car when they write their stories."

But reporters on the receiving end--that's a little dicey. He says news organizations must build a wall, absolute, to protect their independence. "For the news organizations, independence is their franchise," Woods says. "Any compromise is a threat to its independence. A Shop-Vac itself isn't a threat.

"The public already thinks that advertisers have an undue influence on the news. If they see reporters acting like pigs at the trough, well, that doesn't help." Matt Van Vleet, in public relations at Lowe's, didn't want to talk about media giveaways. But he said he'd like to have a free Shop-Vac himself.

For the record, I signed up for one after getting permission from my bosses at the Orlando Sentinel and the folks at AJR. We wanted to see what goodies would show up with the Shop-Vac, take a picture for an illustration, and then send it back--registered mail.

We know that writing about freebies is like putting a red target on your back, the perfect example of what not to do. Anyway, it's been nearly a month--no Shop-Vac has shown. Maybe I've been scratched from the list.

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