Blogger ethics

6 Apr

Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about political candidates courting bloggers. Though the article was a bit shallow, I was glad to see the Chronicle recognizing the influence of bloggers on politics, and even happier to see my friend Sean from BearFlagBlue interviewed for the article.

The article opens with this story:

Dennis Herrera is running for re-election as San Francisco’s city attorney and loudly rumored to be eyeing the mayor’s office down the road. So a few weeks ago, he invited about a dozen influential folks to a local restaurant for drinks (on his campaign’s tab) and some face time. Those folks were local bloggers.

At first, I thought, great, this is really smart on Dennis Herrera’s behalf. He must have some savvy staffers. But then I thought about the fact that bloggers were accepting drinks from a candidate they hadn’t endorsed. I’m not suggesting that these bloggers would be influenced by a few drinks and would be more likely to endorse because of this, but I’m not sure that this kind of behavior fits into my own blogger code of ethics.

The more I thought about it, and talked to others about it, the stickier the issue became. I racked my brain and realized that though I’ve never accepted a drink (or anything else) from a political candidate, I’d certainly allowed elected officials to buy me drinks without thinking twice. I do write about some of these officials, and of course most of them are likely to run for re-election or another office in the future.

There’s also the issue that bloggers, unlike journalists, usually don’t get paid for our work. And for all of the bloggers I know, time is a very precious thing. So then maybe that makes it ok to accept a drink from a political candidate who’d like to meet with us – after all, they are requesting our time and often our advice.

On Friday, Brittney Gilbert addressed a similar issue – the Federal Trade Commission passed new rules that allow the FTC to sue bloggers who make false claims about a product that the bloggers received from companies for free. It’s clear to me that products and political candidates are a different, but these new regulations raise interesting questions about a blogger’s responsibility to be truthful and not swayed by free products or free drinks.

I have no final answer here. I’m pretty sure that I will continue to not accept free drinks from political candidates, but I’m not sure where the ethical line ultimately falls. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this tricky issue.

9 Responses to “Blogger ethics”

  1. V Smoothe April 6, 2009 at 10:00 am #

    I don’t really understand the issue here. What it is about accepting a drink from a political candidate that you see as unethical?

  2. Dave C. April 6, 2009 at 1:14 pm #

    I don’t care if bloggers get free drinks at a meet-and-greet with a political aspirant, but I do think that they are probably more likely to endorse after such events (not because they are selling their endorsement in exchange for free booze, but just because getting to know a politician in that setting, especially when you don’t have to pay for your own booze, is bound to leave anyone with a somewhat favorable impression.)

    I’m a fan of the “have conflicts but disclose them fully” school of blogging ethics. 99 percent of blogs are explicitly written from a single person’s point of view, and the stance of neutrality and objectivity, which wasn’t entirely convincing when traditional newspapers tried it, is even less convincing when bloggers try it. Better just to enjoy the free drinks, be upfront with readers about it, and then let your readers decide how much to trust your assessment of the politician.

    Now I’m feeling a bit left out, since no politician has ever offered me free booze…

  3. Jesse Unruh April 6, 2009 at 1:29 pm #

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you can’t drink their booze, eat their food, take their money, and vote against them in the morning, you don’t belong in politics. Or blogging, whatever that is.

  4. Becks April 6, 2009 at 2:16 pm #

    You know V, I can’t quite figure it out, but when I read that article yesterday, that was my initial reaction. The more I think about it though, the more I’m unsure how I feel. And I think this has to do with the fact that I haven’t entirely reconciled my place as a blogger (or the place of bloggers in general). So I have to remind myself sometimes that we’re not reporters, and so we shouldn’t have to follow the same rules as they do.

    I think Dave makes a good point – as long as we disclose where we’re coming from, then there’s not much to be concerned about.

    Ultimately, I’m not concerned that I’ll ever be swayed by a drink, and if I’m not concerned about that, then maybe there’s nothing to be concerned about in these situations.

  5. Ralph April 6, 2009 at 2:18 pm #

    when my resident blogger starts accepting new cars, jewelry, vacation packages in the cayman islands, golf trips to st. andrews, preferred loan pricing on the home in the hills, i will worry. i am not overly concerned, scratch that, i am not concerned about a $9 cocktail. heck, i would be more concerned if they turned it down.

  6. V Smoothe April 6, 2009 at 4:04 pm #

    Honestly, when I see “disclosures” of minor stuff on blogs (“so and so bought me a glass of Chardonnay and a sandwich at Max’s once”), it always comes across to me as the blogger trying to make themselves sound more important than they are. I don’t feel like it gives me a better sense of the blogger’s ethics or honesty or objectivity. Mostly I just wonder why they think I care.

    I think it’s fair to expect disclosure of something that could reasonably be expected to strongly influence a person’s position on a certain matter. If I’m going to write about a Council decision relating to my workplace, for example, even if my job isn’t at stake, I would feel obligated to disclose that. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that a blogger would endorse a candidate because they got a free shot of bourbon from them once (and I don’t imagine that someone whose affections could be so cheaply bought would be a particularly compelling writer anyway). If anyone is going to endorse Dennis Herrera because of a party, I doubt whether the bar was host or cash would really matter – Herrera’s winning the hypothetical blogger’s affections by making him feel important, not by giving him something he could have just as easily purchased.

    Also, what Jesse said.

  7. Eric April 6, 2009 at 4:32 pm #

    I don’t think that disclosure of free food or beverage would really affect my opinion of the blog or post in question. With or without such a disclosure, I’ll read the content of the post for what it is. Regardless of whether a disclosure is included: If there’s some fact or argument in the post that seems convincing, then the blogger’s endorsement is something I will consider. If not, I’ll just ignore the endorsement. But that opinion is formed on the basis of the output itself, not whether the blogger drank a free glass of wine before writing the post.

  8. Dave C. April 6, 2009 at 8:16 pm #

    I must value free drinks more than the rest of you. Give me a few free shots of bourbon, and I’ll endorse Hummers on my blog if you want me to. I guess my allegiance is just easily bought. It’s a good thing I’m not a political blogger, because I would be totally untrustworthy.

    More seriously, I agree that getting a free drink is not a big enough deal to require disclosing, and I also agree that a lot of those “full disclosure” notes are pretty silly and just make the blogger look self-important. On the other hand, if I wrote about a campaign event where I was given free drinks or food, I would probably allude to the free stuff in passing, in a lighthearted way, just to give readers a sense of what the event was like. Also, there’s almost nothing I love more than free food or drink, and I would be so excited about it that I wouldn’t be able to resist sharing. If I were a reader of the blog, the free drinks wouldn’t matter to me, but I do enjoy it when bloggers include those little tidbits of info in posts, just to add some color or to set the scene.

  9. Alan from Berkeley April 7, 2009 at 2:51 pm #

    I also think there’s a difference between a group-meet in a bar and (say) an intimate dinner for two in the back of Bay Wolf. The first is close to a press conference with alcohol added, and the booze may in such a setting be just a lubricant that encourages a franker exchange. It’s the one-on-ones in the shadows that have more potential for abusive influence.

    The interest in minimizing “undue influence,” however, can have its own dangers. Here in Berkeley an expressed concern (by our anti-everything NIMBYs) for “transparency in government” seems to be leading to a ballot measure to install a draconian “Sunshine Ordinance.” This is an exercise in paralysis-by-transparency, and would require full disclosure of almost any contact between an elected or appointed official and almost anybody that isn’t the official’s spouse, lawyer or priest. It even comes with an innovative extra-judicial star-chamber process for punishing offenders. We’ll probably see this on a 2010 ballot.

    So I say let the drinks (or other freebies) flow — if in public, and if in a group. In the end we have to judge our government reps by what they do and how they vote, and not (very much) by who they choose to hang with in a bar.

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