Journalism ethics: Can I get swag from a charity event?

My Brooks
Those are my feet and the Brooks running shoes I paid for myself — all of which I hope to put to good use as a “Celebrity Ambassador” running in a 10K run to be held this spring in Ottawa.

Last week, I got a request to help an Ottawa-based charitable organization by being one of several  ‘celebrity ambassadors’ for an event they’ll have in the spring. The event is a 10K run. The organizers asked me to raise awareness about the event through my Twitter account, Facebook page, and this blog. There was no “ask” to mention the event in any newspaper copy or on my television program.  The event’s sponsors include a national sporting goods retailer and a sporting goods manufacturer. Event Ambassadors are offered the chance to get a new pair of running shoes, a new pair shorts and socks, and a shirt from this manufacturer. There was no request to endorse either the retailer or the manufacturer.

So, given Leslie Roberts, Amanda Lang, etc. I asked my Facebook followers if they would think worse of me as a journalist if I accepted the job of “celebrity ambassador” and took the shoes, shorts, and shirt.

I was floored at the number and quality of responses.

Now remember: I’m a Parliament Hill political reporter. I have never written a story about either the retailer or the charity in question. It’s unlikely but not impossible that sometime in the future I might have to report on either organization.

That said, there seemed to be broad consensus that disclosure was important.

Several said that while they did not believe I could be “bought off” for what might amount to $200 or $300 in sportswear, perception was important when it comes to journalists and conflicts of interest. I agree.

The minority opinion seemed to be that, since I would be disclosing the fact that I was getting some swag for free and that the swag was worth a relatively small amount of money, go ahead and take the gear.

The majority opinion disagreed and encouraged me to help the charity, raise awareness for the event, but suggested I decline the offer of the free sportswear.

Now, as any runner will tell you, the chance to get a new pair of running shoes is not one that one turns down lightly but in this case, I’m going with the majority opinion.

So this afternoon, I e-mailed the organizer of the event and told them I’d be happy to be one of their “celebrity ambassadors” and raise awareness for the event. And while the generosity of the retailer and manufacturer ought to be commended, I encouraged them to use whatever gear they might have set aside for me to help the charity.

I hope they accept me!

Your correspondent at the start line for the Ottawa Half-Marathon last year.

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