I say this jokingly: Sometimes it absolutely sucks to be a journalist for a reputable publication.
In newspapers, we often do reviews or preview articles about restaurants that have recently opened. This week it was Tapas, an upscale place on College Avenue in downtown Appleton. When we shoot pictures or write features on these places, the owners and chefs very frequently offer us something from their menu... usually it's the very plate of food that we just took a picture of. It's a gracious offer; one that usually comes conveniently around lunch- or dinnertime.
As a journalist I can never take-up a restaurant on that offer. Perhaps it seems like a stretch to you, but the reasoning is the same for why I could never accept a gift of any kind from a public official or prominent business-person.
Coverage cannot be bought. Fair-coverage, however, should be given freely. We as journalists can't allow ourselves to be bought, even if it's a $10 dish at a restaurant. Journalists aren't entitled to anything more than the general public, legally or socially.
Some publications take this principle of journalism to the extreme and mandate that their employees not accept gifts of any kind and of any value. Anything received must be surrendered to the company and later given away. This covers items of such negligible value as a key or credential lanyard – it probably cost, at most, 10 cents to make.
Refusing the offer is the hardest part. It must be done eloquently, sincerely and tactfully. And even then, many won't ever understand why we'd ever in our right minds turn-down a gorgeous plate of free Gambas al Ajallo (garlic shrimp) and a free glass of white Sangria.
It's then that I must resort to using the line, "I just ate."