Keeping Food Blogs Honest

December 11, 2009
Photo by Guy Hand

Photo by Guy Hand

If you haven’t noticed, food blogs are booming.  A vast new chorus of opinionated voices have stormed a beat once the exclusive domain of food journalists working for newspapers and magazines.

This new media source for restaurant reviews, product endorsements, recipes and here’s-what-I-ate-last-night minutia is inarguably a good thing.  It democratizes opinion and gives creative outlet to talent that wouldn’t have otherwise been heard.  Yet, like all things internet, it inevitably leads to the issue of ethics.

Professional food writers are bound by ethical guidelines like those listed for restaurant reviewers by the Association of Food Journalists.  The AFJ says “Good restaurant reviewing is good journalism. Reviewers should subscribe to the same accepted standards of professional responsibility as other journalists.”

Here are some of the AFJ guidelines:

• Reviews should be conducted anonymously whenever possible. Critics should experience the restaurant just as ordinary patrons do. Reservations should be made in a name other than that of the reviewer and meals should be paid for using cash or credit cards in a name other than the critic.

• Two visits to a restaurant are recommended. Three times are better.

• Reviewers should sample the full range of the menu, from appetizers to desserts.

• Pay in full for all meals and services. Don’t accept free meals or use gift certificates donated by the restaurant or a special-interest group.

Some food journalists, no doubt, do a better job of following ethical guidelines than others, but food bloggers, until recently, were under no legal obligation to make public their personal, financial or other connections to products or businesses that could be considered a conflict of interest.

That has changed.  On December 1st, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.  It does not specifically addressed food bloggers, but does include them. In essence, the FTC guides legally bind bloggers to many of the same ethical rules journalists are expected to follow. Bloggers, for instance, must state in a clear and obvious manner whether they are being paid or in any other way compelled to endorse a business or product.  Here’s what the FTC says:

“When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed.”

The Boston Globe says this about the development: ” . . . bloggers, Twitterers, and others who write online reviews or endorse products using new media must disclose it when they receive free merchandise or payment for writing about an item . . . At the center of the issue is a question that has plagued consumers of everything from video games to weight loss products since the dawn of the Internet: How does an average reader distinguish between credible news and paid content when anyone with cable service can set up a blog?”

Food writer and blogger Scott Haas puts it this way: “This means that the next time you read a restaurant review or story about a restaurant; or, an article about food or wine–the writer will be required to reveal, by law, whether the restaurant comped (paid for) the meal or whether the food or wine was sent to the writer as a “sample” or gift.”

According to the Boston Globe article, many bloggers don’t like the FTC guidelines.  But some began grappling with the issue of ethics before the federal rules were made public.  The Blog with Integrity website was created by bloggers “to provide bloggers with a tangible and collective way to express our commitment to a simple code of blogging conduct.”  That code includes disclosing “material relationships, policies and business practices” and “the difference between editorial, advertorial, and advertising . . .”

The Blog with Integrity guidelines aren’t legally binding and critics of the new FTC rules wonder how they can possibly be enforced.  But both attempt to add honesty and transparency to a new, powerful means of communication that hasn’t gotten the ethical scrutiny it should.  It’s a step toward distinguishing credible information from paid content.  And that’s good for readers.

(As for Northwest Food News, we’ve always followed the Association of Food Journalist guidelines; have never accepted payment for reviews, print or radio stories from the subjects of those stories and have taken the Blog with Integrity pledge.)

About Guy Hand:
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.
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2 Responses to Keeping Food Blogs Honest

  1. Michael Boss on December 11, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    This is an excellent post, Guy. As one of the folks involved in Behind the Menu (and a self-confessed amateur food writer), I’d like to add some additional perspective.

    When we created our media project, we started out with a bias that professional food writers may not share…at least not if they write for traditional media (e.g., daily papers). We consciously set out to do two things: 1) be vocal advocates for our local culinary scene; and, 2) as much as possible, let the owners of local culinary businesses tell their stories rather than position ourselves as arbiters of what works and what doesn’t. Our reasoning was that if people found the culinary mission of a local restaurant, winery, farmer, retailer, etc. to be compelling, they would be more likely to give them a try. At which point they could form their own opinion about the product/service.

    In pointing this out, however, there is a hidden bias that we have to own up to. We don’t talk about places that we wouldn’t recommend to a friend or family member. But even beyond our purview, we rely on the ‘buzz’ that is created through social media to identify places we want to focus on.

    We decided to fund our efforts through a non-traditional vehicle. Rather than sell advertising, as most media do (nothing wrong with that, by the by), we created a social media group through Twitter and Facebook that could effectively serve as a forum to bring people together in talking about our local culinary scene, and in so doing lend their voices to its celebration. We’ve since gone into the culinary community and asked local businesses to become members of our social media group to help cover the overhead of managing our SM “broadcasting tower”, including the creation of content about not only our members, but non-members as well.

    Does this approach cross the line established by the FTC? Probably. However, for us the question of integrity boils down to this: nobody owns our content but us. Nobody vets our content but us. In short, nobody “pays to play”. This may seem a disingenuous argument, but since we have never positioned ourselves as food critics or reviewers, we simply tell stories about our local scene and the folks who create it, then let our social media followers take the conversation from there. While I can’t say whether or not this model will be successful as a way to cover the cost of creating content (the question every good food writer faces in some form or another), we do believe it is as authentic a way of engaging an audience over the importance of sustaining their local food culture as media models that ask for advertising dollars from the very people they cover through editorial. And being more “social” than “media”, we are comfortable with letting our followers decide whether or not we are a voice worth listening to, or just another advertising gimmick. Over time, we hope to emulate your blog by encouraging sponsorship from folks who, like the Boise Co-op, have a vested interest in the success of our local culinary scene. One step at a time.

  2. Guy Hand on December 12, 2009 at 7:29 am

    Michael, I don’t think the new FTC rules are meant to pass judgement on different content models, whether promotional or editorial, but to simply differential between them. As the Boston Globe article says, it’s all about helping the average reader distinguish between news and paid content.

    A website or social media outlet receiving money directly from the industry it covers, isn’t illegal. The FTC just says it needs to disclose that fact clearly and directly (in journalism, that would mean disclosing apparent conflicts of interest in each piece).

    It’s about transparency: not merely taking a media outlet’s word that its heart is in the right place, but giving the reader, viewer or listener the information they need to make their own judgement on the value of that content — and whether to view it as news, promotion or advertising.

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