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Food Ethics at the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate in St. Louis

Story by Mandy Treccia

Oct. 6, 2008 – As reporters from media outlets from across the country headed to St. Louis, Mo.,Thursday to cover the first vice presidential debate, they faced a debate of their own: whether to take free food and beer from Anheuser-Busch.

A hospitality tent, open for several hours before the 8 p.m. debate, offered steak, chicken, pork, potatoes, chocolate cake, cheesecake, water, soft drinks and beer. Notebooks, pens and beer mugs also were being handed out..

Besides members of the media, Washington University staff, debate volunteers and campaign workers also were hanging out in the tent.

Many media organizations have strict policies that limit the amount of free food, drink and other gifts journalists can accept  — if they are allowed to take anything at all.

Anheuser-Busch has been the national sponsor of the debates since 1992. Francine Katz, vice president of communications and consumer affairs for Anheuser-Busch, said it was an honor and a privilege to be part of the political process because people will base their decisions on things they learn from debates.

The tent is set up for the media and their invited guests at every debate, Katz said.

“Making friends is our business,” Katz said. “That includes the care and feeding of the media.”

A man wearing Fox News ID tag who did not want to give his name said people depend on getting the food and even look forward to it. The man, who had a beer in his hand, said it was OK to be drinking before the debate because everybody else was.

Dara Brockmeyer, who covered the debate for WJBC radio in Bloomington, Ill., said she was amazed that people were drinking while on the clock, but she thought eating the food was a different matter.

“A lot of outlets have the rule [about not taking anything for free], but it’s different if you’re not doing a story about Anheuser-Busch,” Brockmeyer said. “I think it is a case-by-case basis.”

Ray Long, a Springfield, Ill.,-based political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, said his policy is to never take more than a glass of water or a cup of coffee — if that. In 1996, when the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago, Long remembers seeing a tent with free food for the media; it was always packed.

“I worked for the AP at the time, and management was OK with [reporters] chowing down,” Long said. “I personally didn’t, because I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. I don’t think reporters should take advantage of things the public does not have a chance to do.”

John McCormick, a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who has been covering the presidential campaign, said the Tribune’s policy prohibits employees from accepting anything of significant value. He noted that sometimes journalists don’t have much of a choice if they’re working at a location where other food and drink aren’t available.

“Keep in mind that there is sometimes no option to even purchase a bottle of water or snack within some of these secure zones that are set up by Secret Service and police,” McCormick said.

Brett Akagi, director of photography for KARE-TV in Minneapolis, said a number of factors should be taken into account, including an employer’s policies and a journalist’s own professional standards.

“If the food and drink is going to effect the way I cover a story, I won’t accept it,” Akagi said. “As a journalist with a 20-year career, my radar is always up for looking out for manipulation of any form.”

Akagi said younger journalists need to be careful in this “gray” ethical area. He said they should examine their organization’s standards as well as the standards of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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