To scarf or not to scarf

March 18, 2010

I won it at a news conference in late December.

Red and black plaid, with C A N A D A proudly emblazoned on its back. Half banner, half garment, 95 per cent acyrlic, it was six-feet of pure, official Olympicness. A perfect companion to those ubiquitous red mittens (if I had those). A holographic tag proved it authentic while revealing the scarf’s retail value:


It was my prize for braving the cold and going to city hall for the Edmonton Journal. A kindly forty-something Maritime transplant announced the imminent Olympic torch relay route through downtown Edmonton. She pitched out ten or so scarves to anyone who could repeat back the basic details of the announcement moments ago.

“Who’s the final torchbearer?” A TV reporter barked the answer and was tossed a scarf.

“When does it start?” Another scarf, this time to a freelance photographer.

I saw my opportunity. Never the quickest on my feet, I nevertheless readied myself to blurt out the answer to a question she would surely ask. I don’t even remember what the question was. I got it right, and a scarf flew my way, but I need not have worried about winning.

“Who wants a scarf?” Came the question immediately after mine.

As the progeny of two post-war immigrant families, I’ve always valued a good freebie. My wardrobe includes beer shirts despite the fact I rarely deign to drink Bud or Kokanee. I own pens from hotels, news organizations, conferences, even one from a religious studies journal I’ve never read: a clickety black-inked number with Sacred History scrawled on its side. The scarf was perhaps the best swag I had received in my nascent journalistic career, a handsome reward for covering some of those “’tis the season” moments a holiday internship routinely serves up. Still, I wasn’t sure I would ever wear such a long and loud muffler. Like a beechwood-aged lager, it’s just not really my style.

I hustled back a few blocks to the newsroom to write a straightforward story about the torch route. Along the way, I thought about my own personal limit for freebies. How much can a journalist in good conscience accept without compromising his or her integrity? I have accepted some freebies, while turning down others. I’ve often said no to food, but then again, I’ve also said yes to food. Days before, a kindly great-grandmother insisted on giving me a heaping plate of cookies (and offered to bake me a “boob cake”). My worst ever freebie was also edible, albeit barely: a lunch of overcooked vegetables and chicken served up by the Canadian military. Ugh.

But merchandise? What would I do if I was offered NHL tickets, for instance? Would I have the integrity to turn them down? I honestly hope so, but my love of hockey runs deep within my soul.

The Canadian Association of Journalists statement of principles has a number of things to say on the matter. We journalists, to recite the language of the creed, must not “accept or solicit gifts, passes, or favours for personal use,” must “pay our own way” in most cases, and must “promptly return unsolicited gifts of more than nominal value” or else donate them to charity. Those principles are among several designed to ensure journalists “act independently.” The reasoning behind such principles is casuistic, relying on precedent to avoid situation ethics and bring consistency to journalistic decisions.

The scarf started looking a little unethical. “But…” I wondered, “are those rules really that hard and fast?”

The austere “no-means-no” logic of the CAJ statement isn’t the only rule out there, but it’s pretty representative. The Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, goes even further by deeming business gifts  “borderline bribes.” Slightly less puritanical is the Chicago Tribune, which purportedly has a prohibition against accepting anything more than a keychain. A reasonable approach, advocated by one of my UBC instructors, is to allow an informal limit of $20 gifts. It’s a pretty sound maximum: it won’t buy much, but it will cover a drink, the occasional entrance fee, even a pen or notepad.

“Even a scarf?!?” I asked myself. “$20,” replied the scarf. I was safe. Phew!

The problem with casuistry, however, is that cases change and rules don’t. Even worse, rules actually tend to degenerate into rationalization of behaviour. There are always cases that can fracture the sturdiest law:

  1. When there is no real conflict or even apparent threat to journalistic independence, the rule can seem scrupulous.
  2. It may be difficult to assign a monetary value to something.
  3. Acting independently is sometimes a mathematical impossibility.

For cases #2 and #3, consider the Olympics. In February, I took a low-level, non-journalistic job for the host broadcaster, but I was nevertheless surrounded both by journalists and freebies. Pins, clothes, food, drinks-a-plenty! Like athletes and volunteers, accredited media personnel received official Olympic participation medals, which sell for upwards of $200 each on eBay.

There was plenty of other gifting going on, the cumulative effect of which would undoubtedly run into the hundreds of dollars per person. Add to that the cozy relationship between merchandising, coverage, and sponsorship, and you were certain to interfere with journalistic independence. For individual journalists, it would have been very difficult, even rude, to swim against the “everybody’s doing it” current of the moment. Most employers wouldn’t even care. Making it more of a muddle, appraising the value of all the available freebies was difficult: an item of a nominal cost of production would likely exceed $20 as a collectible.

Towards the end of the games, I remembered that I still had my scarf. Not sure what I would do with it, I had brought it back with me from Edmonton to Vancouver. The tags were still attached.

“Perhaps,” I thought for a moment, “I’ll wear it after all.”

That millisecond passed, as did moments where I imagined giving it away to an appreciative someone who loves the Olympics more than me, say, a classmate or a cherubic little child. My spouse said I should give it away to a shelter. But with the anti-Olympic sentiments abounding among poverty activists, that seemed a little insensitive.

I decided to list the scarf for $20 on eBay, hoping a fan would appreciate it most of all. My timing turned out impeccably. The scarves had sold out at the Bay and Olympic stores, and could only be found secondhand on eBay. The former freebie – tags still intact – quickly shot to $40. Then $70. $90. $130. Finally, in a last moment frenzy, the scarf was bid up above my wildest imaginings:


I couldn’t believe it. That scarf of “nominal value” was suddenly worth more than my entire journalistic output (well, not quite, but…)! My ethical dilemma about accepting it had seemed quaint, even laughable. I was going to write about the torch route regardless, and I hadn’t solicited the scarf. The scarf didn’t change my mind about the Olympics, nor did it affect the tone of my coverage in any way. But now it was a major gift!

In retrospect, I have a new appreciation for the casuistic principles of the CAJ. Twenty dollars may be a helpful limit, but zero tolerance is probably a safer guideline to live by. Judged by the ‘infotainment’ value of much Olympic coverage, it’s probably much wiser to err that way.

A scarf, no matter how fancy, is nowhere as valuable as reputation.


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