Debate: Free food doesn’t equal biased coverage



Editor’s note: When reviewing the Kentucky Kernel’s Code of Ethics at our annual retreat this year, we debated whether reporters should accept free food or items from sources. It has always been a policy that Kernel reporters have abided by — except for sports reporters who have typically eaten the free food at press conferences and games. Kernel editors ultimately decided to enforce the policy consistently, so that sports reporters would no longer accept the free food from the university, unless it is paid for by the Kernel. Is this a huge issue? Probably not. But we do think it’s a window into an important discussion about media ethics and the influence of athletics on college campuses.

By David Schuh | Managing Editor

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I’m going to preface this argument with a simple statement: sports are special. Even though I’m a sportswriter at heart, that’s not something I say with a whole lot of pride. It may not be right, but everybody knows it. There are certain rules that apply to sports writers that don’t to other members of the news media. But is a $7 Papa John’s small cheese pizza going to affect my coverage? Are the complimentary oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and popcorn in the media room going to make me second-guess writing a negative post-game column about Alex Poythress? No, they won’t. Nothing they give me would.

I reached out to the Lexington Herald-Leader to gauge the opinion of a local professional newspaper.

“To me, it’s more of a courtesy than anything else,” said Jerry Tipton, who covers UK sports for the Herald-Leader.

“I can’t believe anybody thinks that they are then obligated in some way.”

The food is a nice gesture for media members. And  reporters from just about every media outlet eat it, for no other reason than convenience. But to say that a meal would make journalists do their job poorly doesn’t speak to the effectiveness of the meal, but of the journalist. I have never felt guilty for writing an article. It is my job at this paper to responsibly provoke and analyze. A $7 concession voucher at Rupp Arena may be the last thing that would deter me from that. “News people see it one way and sports people see it the other,” Tipton said.

“It certainly doesn’t mean that sports people are more susceptible to being bought. It’s all about perspective.” (Full disclosure, Tipton emailed back later and said: “I endorse the decision not to accept food and drink. It gives the Kernel an unassailable position.”)

I don’t believe UK and other universities are trying to compete for journalists’ favor. The ones who have the best food don’t provide it in hopes of pressuring the media into making some return on that gesture.

“I think it is done as a courtesy and an acknowledgement that in many cases, when reporters are covering an event like that, they are fairly trapped,” said Peter Baniak, editor-in-chief of the Herald-Leader.

The Kernel’s decision not to eat the media food at UK sporting events was made so sports are not treated differently. The “philosophical” reason for not taking food at events is so it doesn’t affect our coverage, and there’s a belief that our work will be viewed differently if we’re fed. But this is the way the system works. It isn’t black and white. Some news writers may feel slighted because they don’t get the same benefits, but their argument, though fair, doesn’t see the whole picture. Sports writers can do their jobs just fine without food. It’s lazy and ignorant to believe otherwise. But if a university wants to provide food for a sporting event that may last more than three hours, I don’t think it’s an ethical travesty to grab a sandwich and bag of chips in the meantime (credit bobby). And that isn’t just for sports. Don’t assume a journalist of any kind will sacrifice the quality of their career to save $10 on dinner.

As conceited as it may sound, it’s acceptable for many because everybody does it. And I don’t think anyone with any professionalism about them would accept food if it directly affected their work. If my effectiveness is swayed by a cheap concession meal, I shouldn’t be there anyway.