At most news outlets, travel budgets have disappeared. This is a bummer if you’re a reporter who likes to get outside your comfort zone and see things firsthand, so this makes the junket more appealing than ever.
A friend of mine, who’s a regular contributor to a national magazine but not on staff, was recently offered a trip to Africa by a company he has never covered. He wanted to know whether he could say yes, and if he did, whether all information he gleaned on the trip would be considered compromised and therefore useless in future assignments. Here’s what I told him.
Check your employers’ policies. If you’re on staff somewhere, you (hopefully) already know the policy on junkets and freebies. But for freelance journalists like my friend, who pitch and write for a number of outlets, this is a lot trickier. Chances are you’re a regular contributor at a few places, and you should hit up your editor(s) to ask them what their feelings are about their contributors hopping aboard free trips. The New York Times ethics policies, for example, stipulate that, “Specifically, in connection with their work for us, freelancers will not accept free transportation, free lodging, gifts, junkets, commissions or assignments from current or potential news sources.” If you are hoping to write about the junket, know where you’ll be able to find a home for your pitches.
Check the sponsor’s expectations. Then you’ll need to have some #realtalk with the company, foundation, or nonprofit that’s offering you the trip.
Here’s the big one: What do they expect from you in return? If you’re even going to consider this trip, they’ve got to expect… basically nothing. No guarantee that you’ll write an article even mentioning them.
Gauge the relevance. How close is this topic or company to your beat? If it’s a company in a field you cover consistently, then the junket is something you’d have to disclose regularly. Having to add a caveat to every other article you write is probably not worth spending a few free days abroad. In this way, junkets make no sense to me. If companies want to be specifically name-checked in favorable ways by legit journalists, the junket (or freebie) is quite possibly the worst way to go about it. While a free trip may inform a reporter’s writing on the industry or region, it will almost certainly have the opposite of its intended effect, as an ethical reporter will take pains to avoid giving kudos to the sponsor.
That said, these trips can sometimes get you behind the scenes in places you’d otherwise never gain access. You can feel somewhat better about it if the trip’s sponsor is more on the periphery of your beat rather than central to it—in other words, if it’s something you’d have to disclose only occasionally, when you mention the company directly or use details from that specific trip.
Use it as a path to other reporting. Find out if they can book a return flight that leaves a few days after the junket ends. Even if you can’t write about the subject matter of the sponsored trip itself, you can try to treat it as a free plane ticket and spend some non-structured time poking around for unrelated story ideas on the sponsor’s dime.
Disclose, disclose, disclose. If you’re going to use material from the junket, you best be telling readers about it. Duh. Sometimes, you can make the fact that you were part of a junket a central part of the story you’re writing.
As for my freelance friend who prompted this column? He thinks he’s going on the junket, but before he says yes, he’s waiting on a few more details. Smart.