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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Behind the Blogging Ethics Conundrum

There was a bit of buzz the other week related to an article that appeared in the December issue of Beeradvocate. The article presented some opposing views on what constitutes appropriate ethical standards on the part of people who blog about beer.

This isn't a very glamorous topic for those who aren't somehow invested in blogs, whether as writers or consumers of content. But it actually is a big deal, because the people who read blogs deserve to know what drives the people who write them.

Let me take you back to the the bad old days before the web. In those days, getting information of any kind out to a larger audience typically meant getting published in print. And that generally meant following certain journalistic standards. Sources and facts were often checked and editors were always on the lookout for anything that smelled of possible conflict of interest. Wait...those were the bad old days?

This arrangement has been turned on its head by the emergence of digital technology. Sure, there are online publications that continue to follow established journalistic standards. But anyone can be a self-appointed expert and publish a website, blog or social media page. The barriers and filters that existed when print dominated have broken down in the face of decentralized digital publishing.

In the case of beer blogs, the lack of institutionalized barriers has turned the medium into a veritable free-for-all. Authors cover what they want and often say nothing about what they're getting in return. So you have a blog heavily promoting an event or product whose success will benefit the author of the blog. Yet the connection is not disclosed. It happens all the time, and it happens because a lot of bloggers think it's okay.

However, it turns out there are rules governing blogs. The Federal Trade Commission places blogging  in the same category as endorsements and testimonials. In 2009, the FTC finally revised its Guides Concerning the Use of  Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising [link], last updated in 1980. Why did it take so long? I have no idea and it makes no sense. The pertinent passage from the web reads as follows:
The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. [italics added]
Returning to the Beeradvocate article, one of the people mentioned is Brady Walen. Before he assumed the role of Marketing Communications Manager at the Craft Brew Alliance last year, Brady was a beer marketing consultant and wrote The Daily Pull blog. As soon as he took the position at the CBA, he quit consulting and blogging. Why? Because he didn't want to have his credibility brought into question over any possible conflict of interest.

Ashley Routson was also mentioned in the article. Ashley works for Bison Brewing and is widely known in the beer community as The Beer Wench. Her main blog, DrinkWithTheWench.com, is well known and largely promotional. What she does is promote craft beer in a broad way by talking up beers, events, brewers and more. Even though she works for a brewery, Ashley doesn't see any conflict of interest in what she does.

Who's right? You can make the argument that both are. Brady didn't have to quit blogging when he went to work for the CBA (assuming it wasn't a condition of his employment). He chose to stop because he didn't think he would be able to write what he wanted without constant questions about propriety. Ashley isn't worried about conflict of interest because, even though she works for one brand, she promotes numerous craft brands...and says so on her site.

The point is, blogging isn't a free-for-all. You can't legally accept free beer and related goodies in exchange for covering an event or product without disclosing that connection. In a small way, this is comparable to the record industry payola scandal of the Fifties...when it came out that disc jockeys promoted records based on which record labels paid them.

What are the penalties for violating FTC Guides? Hard to say, really. The FTC website says they aren't really monitoring blogs and reported violations are evidently reviewed on a case-by-case basis (more here). I suppose that means any kind of penalty would have to suit the size of the violation. Who knows what that means in the case of a blogger who receives a few free beers in exchange for coverage.

But disclosure is something bloggers should be aware of and attentive to. In practice, it isn't that hard to disclose incentives or trinkets received in exchange for coverage of an event, product or whatever. It really shouldn't be a matter of following some government agency rule ...it's something we owe our readers from a purely ethical standpoint.

1 comment:

  1. Good read on how blogging should be. A lot of people tend to forget what's the different principles when writing for their readers. Some bloggers could learn a thing or two from this post. Good stuff!


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