Strib: Super Bowl freebies violated ethics code; reimbursement paid

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.”

  • Gary F

    She “ate like 30 oysters” ? Do oysters eat a lot? I guess I don’t know.

    Bob, how many at MPR were sipping the good stuff at that party?

    • So far I haven’t found anyone who attended.

    • None, as near as I can tell.

      Our ethics guidelines are pretty strict. We’re not even supposed to talk about things in the news when we’re in our backyard with the neighbors having a barbecue, as I recall the instruction.

    • RBHolb

      “I like the Walrus best,” said Alice, “because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.”

      “He ate more than the Carpenter, though,” said Tweedledee. “You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how many he took: contrariwise.”

      • Rob

        “The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things; of shoes, of ships, of sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.”

  • Jeff

    I don’t have any restrictions, they can send me next time.

  • JamieHX

    That photo — yuck. And her tweet, too. Ick.

    Good for the Strib, though. Too bad they have to shell out big bucks to pay it back, especially when their staff didn’t have to go/shouldn’t have gone in the first place.

    • Rob

      There’s nothing sadder on social media than photos of putzes snarfing food. Doubly so when oysters are involved.

    • MrE85

      Shell out big bucks for free oysters? Slow clap.

      • RBHolb

        I see what you did there.

        “Shell out” for oysters.

  • Joseph Musco

    Glen Taylor owns the Star Tribune. He also owns the Timberwolves, Lynx, and bid for an MLS team. Is his paper acting as an unabashed booster for stadium construction in Minnesota an ethical gray area? How about when the editorial board endorses stadium-loving candidates like Jacob Frey? Unless those appetizers cost taxpayers $500 million, I think the ethical watchdogs here are missing the forest for the oysters.

    • Don’t confuse the editorial page with the news sections,vyhough. I didn’t see any boosterism from reporters.

  • jon

    “No real or perceived conflicts of interest”

    That’s a pretty standard statement isn’t it, I mean I’ve been working at the same place for 10 years now and I’ve had to do that training online every one of them, and it’s been the same statement everytime…

    I guess it’s nice to know that the media is held to the same high standards as a lowly business analyst…

    For me it mostly means I can’t take gifts or put drinks on the tabs of vendors and I can’t give gifts, even branded merchandise, to customers or potential customers, especially those who are decision makers on buying things… (Sales reps and such have more leeway on branded items, but they need to report it…) Oh and I have to report it if a friend or family member works for a vendor/corporate partner that I know about…

    Between that, the social media policies, and other reporting requirements, I just do my best to never mention where I work… It’s easier than following all of the rules for interacting with the public. (My brother works somewhere with similar rules and I can’t honestly say if our two businesses interact because he has never mentioned the name of the place to me… But given the difference in industries I think we are safe…)