"It looks to the public as if the journalists are just what they're made out to be in the old movies — freeloaders, drunks," said Nick Russell, a former journalism professor and the author of Morals and the Media: Ethics in Canadian Journalism.
Ikea, the Swedish retail giant which opens its Winnipeg store to the general public on Wednesday, invited media to an exclusive party on Monday night, lavishing them with beer and champagne, live music and a gift bag of free Ikea stuff, in addition to the chance to shop at the store with a 15 per cent discount.
Russell said there shouldn't have been a single media person at the event.
"We don't take freebies. We don't give favoured treatment to advertisers. We don't solicit gifts or favours, all those sorts of things," he said.
"It's clearly written down in the CAJ code of ethics, for instance," he added, referring to the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Duncan McMonagle, a journalism instructor at Red River College in Winnipeg, says any reporters who took advantage of the shopping discount at Ikea should disclose that whenever they report on the furniture retailer.
"If you're dumb enough to go to Ikea and take a freebie from them and then go and pretend that you're reporting on them in a disinterested way, you're not that smart," he said Tuesday.
250 people attended
Some 250 people took up the invite and when the announcement was made about the discount shopping, a round of cheers went through the room.
The number of attendees staggered Russell, who said that shows how enticing such events can be.
"I can't imagine how 250 people can claim to be media people in Winnipeg. There may be 50, there might be 100, but 250? That's a very imaginative bunch of people who are suddenly journalists," he said.
The invitation was given to not just mainstream media members, but bloggers and other social media types.
CBC declined the offer to shop because of a policy against employees accepting gifts. However, reporter Nelly Gonzalez went to the event to pose the ethics question to Ikea.
Ikea spokeswoman Maegan Sheskey would not answer any questions about the 15 per cent discount or how many purchases were made at the media event.
"It's really to help, just kind of given an opening look — showcase our products in a really good way and let people come and enjoy it," she said about the event.
While Ikea and others will paint the event in varying shades of innocence, there is a very real issue of bias-buying, Russell said.
“I'm sure the people who were there were saying to themselves, 'Well, I can't be bought for a croissant or a glass of wine. I'm not easily persuaded. I'm objective and distant.' That's not the point. The point is really, what's happening in their head in terms of feeling about Ikea," he said.
"In the old days, we used to think it's a question of bribery — we're corrupting the press by doing this. It's nothing that serious, but what Ikea is trying to do is make friends, to socialize the media so that they all feel warm and cuddly about Ikea, and that's not healthy.
"The media have to stand back and say, 'Thank you, I appreciate it, but we're not going to be there.'"