Free Lunch

MANILA-To eat or not to eat; that is the question some Filipino business reporters ask at every press event.

It’s a question requiring them to decide now, not later; on their own, sans guidance from editors and at the pain of peer pressure.

The time to weigh decisions is a luxury most reporters can’t afford. They must decide fast and, a few times, on an empty stomach.

The ethical dilemma for some is whether the story got from a luncheon press briefing would appear influenced by or favoring the host. Some grapple with this dilemma as uniformed waiters walk around and offer delectable hors d'oeuvres on fine porcelain.

The pressure makes some journalists less envious of reporters at a dinner hosted for President Gloria Arroyo in New York months ago.

For reporters used to wining and dining with the haut monde to churn out pulp fiction from the Malacañan newsmill, the most difficult decision would be which dessert to take.

Others stuck at weighing first the ethical implications risk becoming the epitomy of a “starving journalist”: scooped-out from the hard information and the soft vanila ice cream.

It is tough covering people whose tab for a lunch in a fancy hotel is three times a business reporter’s daily wage.

It’s difficult, too, especially if the source relaxes at the dinner table, where the parting of bread becomes figurative and, sometimes, literal.

Reporters don’t want to offend those trying to feed them good food and sumptuous story angle. So they try to indulge the host with conversation, praise the chef with kudos, and please the editor with a story.

Some hosts, on the other hand, rub reporters' noses on the fact they're picking the tab.

One time at the Mandarin Hotel, a software company executive said journalists enjoy the job because they get the perks of free lunch.

To debunk this view, some reporters nibble on candy or only drink water or coffee at an event, especially if coverages are tightly scheduled in-between.

Some eat breakfast before or lunch after a mid-day press briefing. Not a few bite on sandwiches while typing the story.

Some give up on having two meals a day and cram everything at dinner.

Newspapers in the US have specific rules on hosted dinner and/or engaging a source on a meal he or she insists on paying for, according to A few media agencies listed there advises reporters to avoid or even reject outright any invitation for lunch or dinner as it can cast doubts on the objectivity of a story.

But these rules strongly hint that the reporter is back-stopped by his or her news organization.

It may take a while before business reporters in the Philippines attains such savory position.

In the meantime, journalists have to rely on their wits to ensure a grumbling stomach never force them to swallow their integrity.

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