At their best, blogs are a valuable source of information. Those written by insiders with in-depth knowledge of their subject and contacts that no outside observer can hope to match can give a perspective that the mainstream media and even the more specialized trade press can’t equal.But blogs are in their infancy, and some practices we’re hearing about recently could endanger their credibility, if they continue.
Some bloggers are taking money to review products, and/or to say nice things about them. In some cases, apparently, it’s a case of accepting cash to write a review without promising to sing the product’s praises. In others it’s straight pay-for-praise.
Blogs that create the appearance of objective reporting or commentary carry an implied promise to the reader that their content is either objective fact or the honest opinion of the blogger. Taking pay to write about a product – especially to praise it – betrays the reader.
I know some readers will say “Oh come off it, the mainstream media does that all the time.” If you’re determined to believe that it will do very little good for me to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: that’s not true.
Yes, publications, like most blogs, earn revenue from advertising, and the more specialized the publication the more likely it is that many of the advertisers are the same companies being written about. Well-run publications are very careful not to let that fact influence their coverage. Those that aren’t so careful pay a price in credibility.
There are gray areas. Vendors do spend lots of money trying to draw the media’s attention to their products, which sometimes includes paying reporters’ travel and accommodation costs to attend product launches and other events.
Personally I attend a few events – on average maybe two a year – where travel and accommodation and sometimes meals are paid for by a vendor or someone else with something to promote. I do so only when I’m confident the event is newsworthy, and I make no promises to write about it.
Everyone has their own rules about those things, but I don’t know any reporter who would take payment from a vendor to write about their product. At least I hope I don’t.
Because that isn’t a gray area. It’s crossing the line – not just straying a little bit to the other side but taking a long jump so far that when you turn around you can barely see the line in the distance.
There’s a lot of talk these days about citizen journalism. This might be a threat to people who make their living in the media, but it’s a promising development. More voices can’t help but be good – provided they’re credible. It’s unfortunate there are no universal standards for blogs. But in fact there are no universal standards for the traditional media either (and lets face it, the behaviour of a few media companies reflects that). It comes down to reputation.
When head-office bean counters tell newspaper columnists what to write, smart readers look elsewhere for their information. When bloggers sell mentions on their blogs to the highest bidders, without clearly labeling that paid promotion as advertising, smart readers will do the same. If too many bloggers do this, the entire medium risks being tarred with the same brush. Bloggers, take note.