Ethical Blogging 101 2 March, 2007 — Stuart Brown

On what can be deemed acceptable, and otherwise.

Posted in Blogs & Blogging, Opinion
Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

Blogging is an area that can be fraught with legal and ethic issues - in many ways these reflect the way journalism is affected by ethics and the law, but with blogging there's one significant difference - anybody may start a blog on just about any topic. The barriers to entry normally associated with the press are effectively gone - and passionate folk now have near absolute free reign to write whatever and however they please.

These freedoms are what make blogging great, but at the same time make it easier to fall into ethical pitfalls. As the scale and readership of a blog changes, maintaining a certain level of integrity will help avoid potential legal issues - and perhaps worse, the disenchantment of your readers.

These issues aren't such a concern for smaller blogs - but one thing I've certainly noticed as Modern Life has gained influence and readership is the increasing number of difficult choices I've had to make.

Most of these ethical choices revolve around money, notably the issues of advertising and of paid (or otherwise compensated) blog coverage or reviews. There are a lot of opportunities to get free stuff (even cold hard cash) by blogging, and as an independent journalist a blogger should have every right to take advantage of such offers, but to do so in a way that doesn't reflect badly on their integrity.

Paid reviews

This is a bit of a controversial issue, as some find the concept of paid reviews ethically corrupt, whilst others are more amenable.

I've given the service at ReviewMe a trial, writing a couple of paid reviews thus far (Text Link Ads and Trendio). Both were fully disclosed, and I've been paid $200-odd (about 100) for the time and exposure.

One thing I was careful to ensure was that I had clear and full disclosure on the review itself, making it clear that I was being compensated for my efforts. I also maintained that my opinions were my own, and not influenced in any way by the payment.

It can be hard not to be influenced by the fact you're being paid to write a review, and more so if you know the reviewee will be reading the review, so for all our best intentions there may be a positive bias in a paid review. It is for this reason that disclosure is necessary - simply aiming to provide a balanced review may not be enough.

To summarise:

GOOD: Full disclosure for all paid reviews, in a prominent place, making your relationship with the advertiser/reviewee clear.

BAD: Not making any mention of such a relationship, and attempting to pass off the review as impromptu or uninfluenced by money.

GOOD: Expressing valid arguments and your own opinion within a paid review, good or bad.

BAD: Reviewing a product/service in a particular light, as specified or mandated by the reviewee. Worse: Reproducing parts of a press release or marketing materials verbatim.

Freebies and incentivized blogging

Further to paid reviews, companies quite often will offer a freebie or product sample to a blogger, and encourage (but not always mandate) that they blog about it. This, indeed, was the case with my LG Shine Review. The deal was thus: I got a free phone, on long-term (effectively permanent) loan, with no blogging requirements but a 'suggestion' that I link to the LG Shine blog, and perhaps share my thoughts on the product via the blog.

Of course, I love freebies, but ultimately the people doling them out have an agenda to promote their product - that's how marketing works. So whilst I wasn't paid for the review, I did face similar challenges to the paid reviews I have done.

Some may recall the debacle over the promotion of Windows Vista by giving away free top-end laptops, which does smack a little of bribery, but I do wonder how many people would quite happily accept a free laptop, gratis (if not libre).

I suppose the same rules apply as for paid reviews here - again, disclosure is important, and every attempt to be neutral in approach must be taken. Difficult, perhaps, when you've just had 1,000+ of laptop land on your doorstep?

Still, there are scant few perks to being a blogger as it is - so I'm wholeheartedly in favour of freebies. If the PR company gave me strict instruction to 'include this paragraph', or to write from within a certain opinion, I would certainly think twice.

GOOD: Taking advantage of freebies, but remain honest, give full disclosure and recognize when to reject an offer of free schwag.

BAD: Regurgitated or frog-marched opinion, lack of disclosure, or acceptance of binding terms of said freebie.

Advertising

Advertising is another sore point in bloggery - some people might brag about their pay cheque, whilst others vehemently oppose all commercial advertising. So how best to approach the issue?

Well, as you are probably aware, I do run some advertising on Modern Life. I utilize 2 leaderboard Google AdSense units, top and bottom, FeedBurner Advertising Network CPM ads at the bottom of posts, and Text Link Ads inventory at the bottom of every page.

I suppose, then, that it's a question of balance - there must be a 'sweet spot' between no adverts whatsoever, and a hideous mess of flash ads touting smileys, ringtones and malware. It's a tricky call to make - as a blogger I don't think I'd like to miss out on a potentially untapped resource of income, and there are always the hosting bills to consider.

In the case of Modern Life, I've attempted to keep everything quite low-key - the AdSense can be blocked if so desired, and is relatively unobtrusive otherwise. The FAN ads appear infrequently enough, and are all for prescreened reputable companies. The text link ads are at the footer of the page, past most of the content. And of course, all of the ads (with the exception of the occasional FeedBurner in-feed ad) can be circumvented by using the full, unadulterated content in the RSS feed.

The key, then, is to provide a balance between reasonable income and user interference. If you try to heavily monetize a site with intrusive flash ads, contextually inserted text links (a la Intellitext) or (shudder) interstitials, you could expect to lose a significant portion of interested readers before they've had time to engage with your site. With a more balanced, restrained approach to advertising you should be able to keep a steady income - hopefully covering costs - while not driving users away.

There are, of course, some users who complain about the presence of but one or two AdSense units on one page. I suspect these folk may be more trouble than they are worth!

GOOD: Anywhere between no adverts (if you can afford it and don't mind blogging at a loss) to a reasonable, non intrusive amount. Covering your hosting costs is a great start, and a little extra is a good incentive to continue blogging and to encourage growth.

BAD: Treating your users like you don't want them to stay on your site: Interstitials, flash overlay advertisements, annoying popups. Even excessive use of conventional advertising.

Plagiarism

Bit of a no-brainer this one, but taking content from others and presenting it as your own is a bit of a no-no in polite circles.

I've seen this in regards to some of my own articles before - whole articles reproduced in full, without a mention of the source, nor sign of a link. In one case, such an article was even submitted to Digg and made it to the front page - all without accreditation.

Of course, the vast majority of people know this, regardless of whether they post a short snippet or a couple of paragraphs -there'll be a link at the bottom to the originating post. This is good, and should be encouraged.

Even reproducing the article wholesale can be alright - but usually only with prior arrangement, and a clear link detailing the original author and source. If you're ever in any doubt over your quoting practice, a quick email to the author will usually clear up any issues you may have.

GOOD: Writing original content, crediting sources, quoting properly and linking to the originating article, emailing & asking permission in cases when you're not sure.

BAD: Taking large chunks of an article without proper accreditation, or worse - taking an article wholesale without so much as a link or mention. 'rel="nofollow"' links are an insult, too.

Conclusion

I won't touch on some of the more in-depth legal issues bloggers can face, including libel issues and potential issues within the workplace (or without the workplace, depending on how you look at it). Regardless, there are a million issues that can crop up whilst maintaining a blog - but thankfully, most can be avoided with a little common sense. If all else fails, use your best judgement and if nothing else - don't be evil.