Not many answers but lots and lots of questions!!!

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Global Investigative Journalism Conference

Monday, May 10, 2004

The Highway, TheAirway 

8/5/04 6:01 am EDT

The sun is rising behind me like it wants to chase me out of Toronto as I head west to the airport. My sidebrain chatters about pre-trip issues. Have I got everything? Is customs going to give me a hard time? I'm keeping the speed down even though the side chatter is getting neurotic and niggly. Will I be able to park close to check-in? What if I miss Keiko and can't given her the parking stub to get the car out?

We're doing one of these tightly coordinated dual-career with kid things where I park the car at the airport meet her at the boarding gate and pass her the parking stub and a quick kiss.

Luckily her work schedule as a tour guide and my departure coincide nicely. I dropped her off at the Sheraton Centre at 04:45 this morning so she could shepherd her group of Japanese tourists on to their plane. Then she met me at terminal 3 and did the same thing for me. She had to I had the parking stub.

/5/04 9:01 am EDT

I am sitting aboard an American Airlines Boeing S80 most of the way to Dallas. We just crossed over a huge, winding river that meandered back and forth across the land like a dark dragon drawn on a green background. A peaceful image even though I'm so twitchy from sleep deprivation, caffeine and U.S. customs stress I jump every time the guy in the row behind me sneezes, which he's done three times so far. I feel like forcefully introducing him to the wonders of my $9 battery-operated nose hair trimmer.

The pilot just drawled out the pre-landing announcement. I am about to descend into a 2-hour layover in Dallas before offering myself up to nearly 15 straight hours of Korean Airways in-flight hospitality and then a week in the soul of Korea.

8/5/04 11:30 am DFW Airport is dull but efficient with friendly airport staff. They do have some cool birds so I grabbed some ambient audio and pix.

The Internet hot point costs US$3.00 per minute so I think I'll pass.

The DFW Airport Korean Airways passenger lounge is nothing special but the lemon spice tea and toast-flavoured (!) frito-lay peanut butter and crackers hit the spot.

8/5/04 1:26 pm Sitting quite comfortably, thank you very much, in Prestige Class with nmy feet up and watching the flight go by on my personal pop-up video screen. That's how I know I just shot a couple of pix of the Canadian River in Oklahoma. My favourite show so far is watching the flight stats.

I found a secondary use for the headphones they block out the noise of the other passengers and I can hear the announcements much clearer. We're flying a Boeing 777-200. It holds 245 passengers so I was glad to hear it had rolls-Royce engines.

Lunch will be a steak. There's Korean food on the menu but I will have plenty of opportunities for that in the next week. I realised that I can practice my Korean phrases from the Berlitz Palm phrasebook on the hostess because she has to be nice to me. Kamsahamnida (thank you) gets a big smile and a head bow. I am going to have to learn the etiquette of greeting, bowing and handing over business cards with two hands.

The clouds have cleared as we cross the Kansas-Colorado border and there's amazingly little to see. The only places that are green are the circles that show where they giant irrigation sprinklers are placed.

This is what Siberia looks like from 32,000 feet when you go by at over 500 miles per hour. I shot several pix out the window but this is definitely the most successful. Considering I'm using a Kodak PalmPix attachment on my trusty Palm IIIxe it's pretty good.

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A Debate on Journalism Ethics as Regards Freebies From Sources 

Being relatively new to journalism I posted the following note to the Canadian Association of Journalists freelance discussion list.

"I have been offered a 5-day trip to South Korea by a major electronics
manufacturer to tour their plants, meet their researchers and product people
etc. I was referred by an editor for whom I freelance. Never having been on
one of these. I am turning to the list for tips, tricks, advice and
opinions. What say you pixel-stained wretches of CAJ-Freelance?"

It touched off an interesting debate. Here are some of the more interesting excerpts. The names have been left out because it's a subscriber only list and you have to be approved by the moderator to join. As such, nobody on the list has agreed to have their names published here. Just keep in mind this is a compilation of comments from several people, some of whom might appear more than once.

Of course being a bunch of professionally objective journalists there was no shortage of opinions. :)

======== 1 ====

First, some publications will not accept material written by a freelancer who has been on such a trip. Some publications absolutely forbid staffers to go on these things. I am not saying this as a flat fact because it's been some time since I was around this argument but if memory serves, the National Post would be an example of that.

It's one of those times when there is an issue surround 'looking pure' as well as 'being pure'.

That said, I know this happens all the time and I know that most journalists bend over backwards to avoid even the illusion of having had arms twisted, etc.

Years ago, I was short listed for a journalists' trip to Peru and when I mentioned it to some editors there were some clearing of throats etc.

======== 2 =========

If the editors of the publication(s) you write for or may write
for have no problem with it, go on the trip. If the company
sponsoring the junket, does not demand you produce an article
covering 'topic x' from a particular slant, go on the trip. I
have been on a number of junkets and written nada; I have been on
junkets that inspired many articles. I have always been upfront
with my editors and they have never had problems. Hell, many of
them have suggested that PR agencies invite me on junkets when
they or their staffers could not attend.

======== 3 ===============

well, loaded is true-- but it's more complicated than that. For auto,
technology, and travel writers, subsidized trips are often more the norm
than the exception-- even in newspapers where, for example, a reporter would
be fired for accepting a free trip to "help" him cover a story. Some
publications have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in these matters. Others
will insist on production of verified receipts to prove you paid your way.
Some travel sections or mags will send staffers on free trips, but refuse
stories from freelancers generated out of free trips.
I know of one newspaper travel editor who, whenever he does a speech,
literally heaps scorn and derision on freelancers who take free trips-- but
who bellies -- literally-- up to the bar and buffet more eagerly than any
wirter I've ever seen on a press trip-- and who eats and drinks like a pig,
but refuses to participate in activities the PR people may have set up that
he's just not interested in even trying.
The industry is actually a morass of confusing inconsistency in this area
Fact is, what a freelancer will earn from articles generated out of trips
like this will not, in most cases, ever cover even what the trip would have
cost had the writer paid out of pocket for it, let alone generate a profit
for the writer.
Accepting such a trip will shut you out of some markets. But not by any
means all of them, and you will likely find, if it's a group trip, a number
of staff writers for various tech magazines or newspaper sections are there
as well-- and you can bet they're not paying either, or, if they are, it's a
fragment of thge acutal costs-- called a "press rate." You may also find one
or two from publications that have insisted on paying the full freight for
their writers, to which I say, it's wonderful if you have the wallet to be
able to buy ethical purity.
The most signficant key to maintaing your "purity" is to write factually,
and not get swept away by the PR. Ignore the fact that they're covering your
expenses and are showering you with wee gifties. If anything, go harder on
them when you review the products than you might be inclined to do.
Or, you can become a genuine media whore, which is a great way to get all
kinds of free junkets, publish very little for the rest of your life, and
maybe not sleep too well. But hell, when Jayson Blair's book gets published
eagerly adn he does the talk show rounds to promote it... well.
The industry itself is fraught with hypocrisy. You can choose to contribute
to that, or try to counter it through your own behaviour.
Not an easy choice sometimes.

=========== 4 ================

Patrick, I realize that some publications will not support an article
done by a writer who had their expenses paid etc. However, my experience
is that this is of no consequence to many others. For example: most
trade and business publications.

So do some research on the manufacturer/plants + on the location of
theses plants... and scout around a shop that carries a bajillion
magazines and let your imagination run wild re: where potential stories
might "fit". For example, a corporate business mag. may be interested in
a piece re: how you packed for/planned your trip + your perspective on
cultural cues/differences/protocol doing business ... OR 5 "must
do-must see" things after business hours. Many business mags carry small
business travel sections or run special stories.

Check with the Canadian Consulate and find out what Canadian businesses
are importing/exporting to Korea. There could be a good story on the
"Canadian Connection" for a bus. mag [or newspaper business section].

Also find out what federal departments have programs going on there.
e.g., there may be a huge economic development project tied into Canada.
Yyou can also check with orgainzations like CIDA, Doctors without
Borders; the Red Cross etc. as they may have some
educational/health/community development projects going on where you are
going and you may be able to connect with some team members. These are
often of interest to newspapers or magazines who feature International
Development stories.

You could do something for CBC. A first person account of your
trip/insights for "Out Front" or a short commentary on the differences
between doing business in Korea and Canada. CBC frequently loans the
little minidisc recorder and mike. For some possibilities, check out:
http://radio.cbc.ca/facilities/freelance/ Also, Todd Maffin's written a
sharp little primer called "From Radio to Air: A Freelancer's Guide to
Contributing to CBC Radio" It sells for $20 and can be purchased from
his web site--which is chock-a-block full of information and resources
related to writing for radio, how to pitch etc. http://todmaffin.com/cbc/

Then you could write a first person essay about your trip and slant it
for Macleans "Over To You" or the Christian Science Monitor's "Home
Forum" or the backpage (I think called O Canada ... not sure) of
Canadian Living etc. etc. etc. There are quite a few essay markets for
1st person piece. They don't pay big bucks but you may be able to churn
out a story on the plane on your way back and pick up $200-300 for 800
words or so.

I think that we often equate taking a trip with selling stories to
travel magazines .......... I have yet to sell a story to a travel
magazine. May never bother. They are fairly difficult to break into for
feature writing and have many restrictions that have been mentioned by
others re: what you can have compted or not. But I"ve sold many many
stories that came out of my travels to other publications and they are
still "travel pieces," and I consider myself a travel writer as well as
a business writer, gardening writer etc. etc.

So. Go! Enjoy! Get as much paid for by someone else as you can. And
NETWORK like crazy while you are there. You can always do stories by
interviewing people by phone/email when you return. Just get the
connections! And when you get back tell us all about your trip

======== 5 =====================

I think free trips are a clearly obvious and unacceptable conflict of interest for any journalist, freelance or staff.

Maybe this has become accepted in travel and some other kinds of writing like autos, etc., (and if so these section pages should warn readers) but it strikes me that writing a business magazine piece based on a trip paid for by said business is, imo, beyond the
pale, ditto for highly credible media organizations like CBC and Maclean's. I also think having this as accepted practice among freelancers kills what slim credibility freelance journalists might have, and adds to public distrust of journalists in general.

A while ago the CAJ denounced one of our own, Stevie Cameron, for allegedly sharing information with the RCMP. Corporate boards are being forced to clean up their own ethical and other breaches. Government bodies at all levels are under a microscope. Can the media turn a blind eye to commercial conflicts of interest? Am I becoming a curmudgeon on this issue?

========= 6 ===========

As a music journalist, let me add to this discussion that sponsored trips to festivals are quite common.

Frequently, festivals work with tourism boards or with their sponsors (particularly if they are hotels or airlines) to provide these trips. It's not really a problem re. conflict of interest for me because I review the artists and not the festival per se. In addition, I've always made it quite clear that the fact that the trip is paid for or (in some cases) partially paid for will have no affect on how I judge the music.

By the way, I've filed reviews and/or stories on these music festivals to CBC, CanWest newspapers and various magazines and never had a problem with the fact that my travel/accommodations were comped. After all, every news organization I've ever encountered accepts comp tickets for their reviewers (and frequently extra tickets for others in the newsroom too).

==== 7 =========

When I review films and DVDs... I get invited to press screenings, events,
and get sent DVDs... None of which prevented me from giving failing grades
to many of them.

== 8 =============

Hands up, all the freelance writers who can plunk down the couple three-four thousand dollars to go to Korea, for whatever reason.

Yes, such a trip is an expensive one. Yes, it might be viewed as a big perk. But when does something like this become a "bribe"?

As it appears from my vantage point, there are only three kinds of (Canadian) writers in Korea -- independently wealthy [1] writers [insert laugh track here], writers sent by wealthy media [ditto], and those imported by Koreans. Poor, noble, lips-that-touch-liquor writers are left to sit on the BC coast with powerful binoculars.

So, the Canadian eyes that see Korea are either wealthy, which some consider a suspicious circumstance in itself, or else have been airlifted in by Korean business.

Do Korean businesses want or expect to get partisan coverage as a result of their junkets? I suggest they do, but only in the very limited sense that they might like any coverage at all.

We have to distinguish the price of the thing from the value of the thing given. If I get a $40,000 trip to a gulag in Siberia, and I hate it, have I received a $40k benefit? If I'm given a single red rose (street value $2.25) from my own true love, would I rather have that than the gulag all-expenses paid trip?

========== 9 ===========

I'm not sure if anyone can share their experience if they've lived in the U.S.--but not a single freelance friend I have turns away freebies at *any* level.

Interestingly, they are writing for major outlets, many of which *do* have policies on this issue. Trips to Cuba, the Bahamas, free clothes...it's really quite incredible.

====== 10 =========

When I was a freelance music reviewer for the Winnipeg Free Press in the
'70's (pop, folk, country, rock - occasionally jazz and classical), the Free Press
insisted on paying the reviewer for two tickets to each event reviewed. They
would not accept comps on behalf of reviewers and did so to maintain their
independence of viewpoint.

When I worked at CBC Radio, the policy on "gifts" was they could only be
accepted if 1) their value was less than $25.00 and 2) it would be seen as
rude not to accept it. So accepting the hand-decorated coffee mug proffered
in gratitude by head of the seniors group who had just been interviewed on
their new volunteer home care program would be fine. But fancy silk baseball
jackets from record company promoters would have to be declined.That kind
of thing.

When I was senior producer on Morningside, there was a long-established
tradition in place there that all the books sent in for possible review or as
background to interviews along with CDs, tapes and various other gizmos and
gadgets (a breadmaker proved a popular item one year) given to the program
for interview purposes or in the hopes of an interview or airplay over the past
year (stored up in boxes and on shelves) were auctioned off to CBC staff just
before Christmas and the proceeds given to charity.

===== 11 ===========

For a while I wrote a major travel guide about Vancouver, Victoria and the Canadian west coast. My guide was very much aimed at upscale tourists, and you guessed it, with what they paid there was no way to finance stays at five star hotels or meals at high end restaurants. The policy of my guide was very much 'don’t ask, don’t tell'.

I went through some moral qualms about the whole freebie junket-slut aspect of what I was doing, which I eventually resolved in my own mind with what I now think of as a very simple resolution: never lie to the reader. With that, I could then happily accept high end hotel stays and comped reviewers meals knowing I would tell my readers the truth about what they would be getting.

So when the premier hotel in Victoria gave me a comp, and I wrote in my guide that while the hotel had a lovely façade and lobby, the rooms were so small if you swung a cat around by its tail you’d bash its head on all four walls. Had I just been given a tour of the hotel, I might have been awed by the grandeur of the public spaces and not paid quite so much attention to the room size.

About the time I was writing my guide, the Lonely Planet people came out with their own guide about Vancouver and Victoria (as did about three other companies; there was an explosion of interest in the pacific northwest at the time). Lonely Planet has a very strict no-freebie-at-any-time-on-pain-of-death policy. But they don’t pay their writers any better than my guide.

LP started out as a backpackers guide, but as their market has aged they've been trying to migrate upscale a bit, including higher end restaurants and hotels. For a while the LP author told me, s/he tried to review the higher-end restaurants by going alone and just ordering a soup or appetizer - just to get a sense of the place - but even that proved too expensive. So s/he resorted to reading menus and cribbing reviews from other reviewers (nearly all of whom get their meals comped).

So here's the question: were the readers of our respective guides better served by me the freebie-slut who actually experienced these places and could write about them honestly, or the poor brave LP author peering in the window and cribbing notes from other (comped)reviewers?

For myself I know the answer. And my response to Patrick would be: go to Korea. Research the hell out of the company beforehand so you can ask good tough questions. Then tell the truth to your readers. Do that, and you need accept no guff from anyone about journalistic credibility.

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Welcome to Korea Patrick Boake 

That's the sign that Ken Shido and Patty Chung were holding up as I exited from the arrivals area at Incheon International Airport but I'm getting ahead of myself.

A month or so ago Ian Johnson, my editor from the Globe & Mail mentioned that he had referred me for something but didn't say what. Around the 26th of April, Robert Manne, a rep from Edleman, Samsung's PR company, called me and asked if I would go to Korea for a 5 day tour of their research facilities, some demo projects (a wired apaprtment building) and meet/interview some senior execs and researchers. I said yes immediately. Well, immediately after checking with girlfriend (fiance?) Keiko.

This is my first overseas trip ever so the next several days were taken up with planning and clearing off my desk, which needed doing anyway. I didn't bother with vaccinations. But I did buy a wireless network card and loaded up the Palm Pilot with some new freeware like a currency coverter, Expedition which is a travellers log and has a great inventory section so I know what's in my bags, Berlitz phrasebook, and Firepad. Fire pad is a document viewer and I used it to store scans of my ID and passport on my Palm in case something happens to the originals.

They join my other pieces of palmware like the compass and Rise Set, the sun/moon rise/set times calculator. Both of those work by plugging in the date latitude and longitude of wherever you are and calculating the sun's position.

Looking up the latitude and longitude is done (for Seoul in this example) by checking outMaporama.com a more complete mapping site than mappoint or mapquest which tend to be North American centric.

The Palm Pilot is ready but am I? I wondered if I needed vaccinations to go to Korea. I called my doctor's office and they just gave me the number for the travel clinic who just made an appointment. Innoculations aren't covered by government health care and can cost a couple of hundred dollars. Places like Health Canada's Information for Travellers - Travel Medicine Program web site: offers travel health recommendations and advisories. They recommend vaccinations for Asia but I talked to a friend about Korea and she said they weren't necessary. So I skipped the needles.

It's also wise to check Foreign Affairs Travel Assistance for information on things like upcoming elections (which can turn violent sometimes) and other problems one might encounter while travelling. Also a good source of information on other countries.

I'm excited now. It will be time to go soon.

Check out FreewarePalm for these and other great Palm tools.

I am going to do a blog entry for each phase of the trip so keep reading.

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