The small seaside restaurant had been selected as a place to eat in Canada.
I got up early one summer morning and drove a couple of hours to do a story on it.
The woman who operated the restaurant, a super-friendly senior citizen was thrilled with the unexpected designation.
She beamed with excitement during an engaging interview that wrapped up just before lunch.
I hadn’t eaten since early before I hit the road. And after discussing her menu and the love she put into preparing it, I was hungry.
An hour or so from the nearest place to eat, I decided to stay and have something there.
The restaurateur had spoken eloquently about her fish and chips. I ordered that and wasn’t disappointed. It was absolutely delicious.
Many years later, the fresh, flaky cod and golden home fries are etched in my mind as some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.
I complimented her on the meal and asked for the bill.
She told me it was on the house.
Thanks, I told her, but I had to pay.
She said there was simply no way I was driving all that way to do a story on her restaurant and buying the meal.
I told her that, ethically, I had to.
She appeared to be getting frustrated with having her hospitality challenged.
She drew a line — “I’m not taking your money.”
I didn’t want to offend her, nor did I want to abandon my principles by accepting a free meal from a restaurant I was writing about.
I sat at the table wondering what to do.
I had only graduated from journalism school a few months prior to this.
This was one of those moments Bruce Wark — who taught ethics at the University of King’s College in Halifax — had warned us about.
I heard him whispering in my ear, advising me not to leave without paying.
The restaurateur seemed like she was starting to feel slighted and getting more and more perturbed.
After some deliberation, I rolled the dice and decided to leave enough money on the table to cover the meal and a gratuity.
I’m still not sure if that was the right thing to do, but I felt like my principles remained in check.
That was the first real test of my ethics as a journalist and I’m taken back to it often.
People constantly offer you free stuff in this racket.
Most of the time, I think they are just being kind and not trying to “buy” favourable coverage.
Occasionally though, someone will say something like, “If the coverage is positive, I’ll take care of you next time.”
And that makes you feel a little sick.
Regardless of the giver’s intent, I turn down freebies.
Professional journalists do.
And I think that’s an important point or consideration these days.
The people publishing propaganda or fake news are governed by inflexible ideology, not ethics.
They are not trying to produce fair and balanced journalism, free of bias for the betterment of their communities. They want to misinform and manipulate.
So, when consuming news, ask if the source is credible and works with facts, fairness and/or fair comment.
If they don’t, my bet is they would take the fish and chips, and whatever else suits their agenda.
Steve Bartlett is SaltWire Network’s senior managing editor. Reach him at [email protected].