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Backstory: Most Ethical Interaction


Published December 30, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

  • File: Derek Brouwer ©️ Seven Days
  • James Hasson

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2020.

A basic principle of journalism ethics requires that reporters don't accept gifts from sources, nor do we perform favors for them. The mere appearance of a conflict of interest is enough to undermine credibility, which is all any reporter is worth. 

Every news organization interprets this stricture in its own way. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, tells its reporters to refuse any gesture worth at least $25, or any food that can't "be eaten by one person in one seating." Seven Days takes a harder line. We can't exchange any object or service with sources, according to our employee handbook. 

So I was a little surprised last May when my editor, Matthew Roy, suggested I make a small exception to the rule. I was going to visit a 94-year-old World War II veteran, James Hasson, at his rural Cavendish home for a story about seniors isolated by the pandemic. His social connections had been reduced to daily phone check-ins from a local senior center and socially distant meal drops. 

Matthew suggested I call Hasson to ask if he needed anything. It was the decent thing to do given the circumstances, he thought. 

Without pause, Hasson told me there was one thing he could really use: bananas. He hadn't tasted a ripe one in months. 

I brought a bunch. After our interview, conducted across a picnic table in Hasson's backyard, he insisted on reimbursing me. I told him not to worry about it — the bananas only cost $2 — but Hasson went inside to scrounge for cash. He could find only one dollar. I accepted it and told him not to sweat the remainder. I also promised to mail him a copy of the story.

Nearly four months later, a letter from Hasson arrived at the newspaper's office. "This note is shamefully overdue," he wrote, explaining that sometimes his fingers were too stiff to write. "You brought some bananas for which I paid you only one dollar & paid the postage to send two issues of 'Seven Days.'"

Enclosed was a $15 check made out to my name. In the memo line, Hasson wrote, "expenses, thanks."

I still haven't cashed it.