Blogging Honestly

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The New York Times has an article out that raises some interesting questions for the future of blogging. It ponders whether it's okay, and if so under what circumstances, for bloggers to receive some form of sponsorship with or without disclosure. I think that this is an interesting question.

Let's start with Colleen Padilla, the woman it features. She's a mother/blogger who reviews products that other mothers might be interested in, like baby clothes and kitchen appliances. The Times says:

Ms. Padilla typically acknowledges in each review which products were sent to her by companies and which items she bought herself. Other items on her site include her own videos for brands like Healthy Choice, which she labels as sponsored posts.

So far so good. But then, the Time tells us:

But unlike postings in most journalism outlets or independent review sites, most companies can be assured that there will not be a negative review: if she does not like a product, she simply does not post anything about it.

That's not so good. For consumers to get a full understanding of the types of products she reviews, they would be better served to hear about the bad with the good.

While this might not be ideal, I'm not sure she's breaking any journalistic code of ethics. She's not necessarily obligated to review every product she comes into contact with. Certainly journalists don't write about every interview they do or about every piece of information that crosses their desks. Still, a negative review from time to time would probably enhance her credibility.

This does raise some questions about blogger ethics. I'd like to offer a few thoughts/standards:

Always Disclose Everything

If a blogger is getting any type of advantage related to a blog post, then that needs to be disclosed. Something for free? Disclose it. Someone paying you to write something? Disclose it. Own stock in or have a relative that works for a company you're writing about? Disclose it. It's kind of obvious to me that, in order for a blogger to maintain any kind of credibility, a blogger should always err on the side of disclosing more than necessary.

Try To Steer Clear Of Obvious Conflicts Of Interest

If I were a major shareholder in a company, for example, I would avoid writing about that company. Now, if some earth shattering news came about involving that company, like widespread fraud allegations or a mega-merger, then that might be impossible. But I think it's still okay to write about the company, so long as a disclaimer is clearly communicated that the blogger might have a conflict of interest. Then, the reader can at least take what the blogger says with a grain of salt.

I have a hunch that before long stock research might turn more to blogging. At that time, those posting stock tips or analysis need to be very prudent about disclosing their own stock holdings, and even those of their family. I think the SEC will eventually need to regulate bloggers who regularly post about businesses, especially if specifically geared towards investment advice.

Don't Be Scared To Be Compensated

Now don't get me wrong: it's okay for a blogger to be compensated in various ways for writing. After all, bloggers need to make a living too. I think getting free products or being paid for advertising is okay -- so long as disclosure is clear. Readers can decide for themselves whether or not to trust the opinion of a potentially biased writer.

Bloggers Can Be Legitimate

The Times also has a sentence that really annoys me:

Others also question the legitimacy of bloggers' opinions, even when the commercial relationships are clearly outlined to readers.

This is silly. How does a professional print journalist establish legitimacy? By writing articles and eventually becoming well-known and trusted. Bloggers can certainly do the same. Being associated with a specific professional news outlet might seem to produce instant credibility, but there's little doubt in my mind that there are amateur bloggers out there more credible to be writing about their subjects than the professional journalists who write on the same topics.

Bias: It's Not Just For Bloggers

Quickly, I just wanted to address the issue of bias in broad strokes. When it comes to journalism, bias is possibly the worst four-letter word imaginable. But it's also impossible to eliminate. Every journalist has some personal biases that shape his or her writing. For example, I'd venture to say a lot of political journalists vote. However, you never see disclosures about journalists' political beliefs before each article they write. Yet, people consider their journalism legitimate. I just think it's important to point out that bias is hardly a problem for bloggers alone, as even the narrower world of journalism could benefit from some introspection when it comes to disclosing bias.

Note: For anyone interested in my personal business biases, I have no strong ones. I do not own any stock -- or have any other investments other than a savings account -- outside my 401k. If that one day changes (dare to dream), then I'll be sure to let everyone know if it relates to something I write about. I also receive no compensation, free stuff or kickbacks from any company or organization, other than my regular bimonthly paycheck from my employer, Atlantic Media.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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