Wednesday, December 2, 2009

With Blogging Comes Responsibility: New FTC Advertising Guidelines

Yes, it's been a while. Over three months since I've written anything--although it's not to say I haven't thought of things to discuss. Let's just say I've been slow to act. Between moving into a new apartment during that dreaded September 1 time frame, starting grad school, working full time and yes, I admit, a sheer sense of laziness at times, this endeavor has taken a minor back seat. But I've decided to dive back in, so to my two loyal followers (thanks, mom and dad), sorry for the delay.

Back when I was just "thinking" of topics to potentially discuss, I stumbled across this article from the BBC in October about the tenth anniversary of Blogger which chronicled its evolution from a tool to aid in-house communication to a "personal printing press" for the masses. Interestingly enough, the Boston Globe recently explored how bloggers are now being mandated by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose to readers the acceptance of any free products or payment they've received for writing about an item. As blogs have progressed from their humble beginnings, it appears they may just need to start obliging to some journalistic standards. (The new guidelines also apply to endorsements by celebrities and those on Twitter.)

This has rubbed some bloggers the wrong way, according to the Boston Globe:

Fueling the controversy over the guidelines is the fact that mainstream media such as newspapers and magazines are exempt. Some bloggers are offended by what they perceive as an attack on their ethics. Others acknowledge the problem but chalk it up to a few bad apples.

A whole new can of worms has been opened--especially in terms of defining the role of blogs in journalism. It's clear that blogging has squirmed its way into a respected form of media in many senses and, in other ways, it still remains a tool that has steered clear of journalistic norms and ethics, maintaining its free-spirited, anything goes vibe.

But if you're looking to be heralded as a respectful contributor to media, don't you need to be held up to some respectable standards? It comes with the territory.

And no, this is not an attack on bloggers' ethics. It is exactly the opposite. It is that idea of transparency for consumers which lets them know you have nothing to hide. This is a way of upholding ethics.

During some of my intern days at a consumer public relations agency, we did blogger outreach with some of our products and for the most part, writers made it a point to disclose that the products were given to them to be reviewed and as consumers, shouldn't we all be expecting that? It's not to say that every free product received by bloggers has received rave reviews, but ethically speaking, the danger is there for that to happen if there is a lack of transparency.

This is why media outlets have Codes of Ethics. The New York Times Code of Ethics states:

Staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favorable coverage or for avoiding unfavorable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organizations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom. Gifts should be returned with a polite explanation; perishable gifts may instead be given to charity, also with a note to the donor. In either case the objective of the note is, in all politeness, to discourage future gifts.

PBS' Guidelines states:

Audiences must be able to trust the information in our programs, but that trust could be jeopardized by the appearance of commercialism. At one extreme would be a perception that the program was created primarily to sell the funders' productions and services. Thus, a producer must avoid any arrangement in which an entity is paying for placement of its product or service in the program. If a producer needs to use products associated with the content of the program in the course of making the program, best practice is to cover the names of those products, but if that is not feasible, then the funders products can be used so long as they are treated no better or worse than other brands. The use of particular products in a program to demonstrate a point is an editorial decision. If products are donated, proper recognition belongs in the credits. Nothing in this rule would prevent the appearance of products in the course of reporting a story about the products themselves, nor would it violate the rule if the product appeared naturally in the course of shooting a location.

Why should bloggers be faced with anything different? Why wouldn't they want these types of guidelines if they want to be taken seriously? This is of course one of the fundamental issues of blogging--a lack of a code of ethics.

But the paradox is that blogs don't have a code of ethics because it is in many ways impossible. While anyone can start a blog, the same ease is not permitted in establishing a media company. Magazines and newspapers are exempt from the new guidelines but they are held accountable through their companies by their code of ethics. This is not a viable set up for the online world of bloggers, where the majority have no one or nothing to hold them accountable. Thus another fundamental issue: how do you enforce such guidelines on the black hole that is the Internet?

That's grounds for a whole new discussion!

Nonetheless, the new FTC guidelines are at least a step in the right direction. Yes, there will be some gray areas that need clarification but you need to start somewhere, right?

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