When a big, national event rolls into town -- a national political convention, for example -- a host committee will almost always have a party for the thousands of representatives of the media beforehand.
That's the way it worked at the Super Bowl in Minneapolis last month, too. The exclusive party at the Mall of America was for credentialed media only.
It's a "splendid evening on someone else's dime," as SB Nation called it in 2014.
It's also an "ethical disaster that will haunt us for some time to come," a member of the Star Tribune's union said in a post Super Bowl performance survey that showed wide disagreement among journalists on the question.
The complaint, however, caught the attention of management at the newspaper. On Wednesday, newsroom executives announced in an internal memo that the newspaper will reimburse the Super Bowl Host Committee for the cost of providing the perk to employees who attended.
During our coverage of the Super Bowl, more than two dozen staffers attended a media party sponsored by the Super Bowl host committee. Because we provide readers coverage of the committee, this conflicted with our code of business conduct and ethics, specifically "avoiding behavior or actions that could be a real or perceived conflict between your personal interest and the interests of the company."
As a result, we have reimbursed the host committee for each staffer's attendance. Doing so was a significant cost, but it was ethically important for us to pick up the tab, particularly for those who were part of our impressive coverage team.
We will be doing some additional reviews of how well we are adhering to our own standards. This is a good time for all of us to review our Code of Conduct, posted on StribNet Info & Policies. if you have any particular questions or issues, please share them with us or your AME.
"I always think that the tendency these days is to obsess over the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if it doesn't really exist, on the grounds that the press has to be like Caesar's wife because someone will call out any journalist who they see as being bought and paid-for," says Jane Kirtley, who directs the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota.
"Most journalists would insist that they wouldn't be influenced, but again, it's about perception as well as reality. And one must ask: why does the host committee sponsor a bash like this if it doesn't think it will benefit from it?"
And it's not just the host committee that presents a potential conflict. Thirteen people planned the the Super Bowl Media Party, most of them as representatives of corporations looking for "activations."
In the practical world, a free drink or a game of air hockey isn't going to to sway a good journalist. But in the real world, the appearance of a conflict of interest is serious business. The Star Tribune has led the way among news organizations trying to pry the secret details of the deal between the NFL, the host committee, and the city and state.
Free food and alcohol can look like an invitation to look the other way on the things that authorities wanted to keep secret and an appearance of a conflict of interest can ruin trust between journalist and reader.
"It's great that the Strib is doing the right thing," Kelly McBride, the vice president of the Poynter Institute, said in an email.
"If the party had a ticket price and there was no journalistic reason to be there, then it's right to reimburse the Super Bowl committee," McBride said. "This isn't an ethical disaster by any stretch. But public actions like this go a long way in setting expectations for the journalists who work at the newspaper. Next time someone gets a valuable gift at work from an outside organization, it will be impossible to "forget" what the company's standards are."
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