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Archive for May 5th, 2008

In the past, I’ve described bloggers as amateur journalists. Those who are good enough and ambitious enough eventually find paying gigs and become professional. Broadly speaking, that’s still true, but I now think that’s incomplete. Where a professional journalist is constrained to follow a code of ethics in doing reviews, bloggers only need to follow their consciences. And, for some, their consciences are not enough.

As a professional journalist, I am required by my editors to follow a well-recognized set of guidelines in dealing with my subject matter. If I write about an organization to which I have connections, I’m supposed to disclose that connection, if only at the end of the story. If I receive a piece of proprietary software (not that I ever get much, since I cover free and open source software), I either return it or throw it away when I’m finished with the review. Similarly hardware (again, I don’t get much; due to the vagaries of the tariffs imposed by Canada Customs, few companies are willing to ship from the United States to Canada), I return it to the sender when I’m done.

This basic code of ethics isn’t always comfortable. It means, among other things, that I don’t take out membership in the Free Software Foundation, even though I support that organization’s goals, because I might be tempted to pull my punches should a time ever come when I need to criticize freely. But I try to follow it because part of what I sell is a truthful voice. Unless I make an effort to keep that voice, then what I write is useless.

Probably, the editors I sell to regularly wouldn’t fire me if I knowingly lapsed from these standards. But they would reprimand me the first time, and would probably stop buying my work if I continued in the ethical lapse. They have their own credibility to consider, and buying tainted work doesn’t enhance it. And, at the risk of sounding priggish, I accept these standards as natural and, if not ideal, then at least the best that can be followed to retain integrity.

Imagine my shocked innocence, then, when I discovered that some bloggers do not consider themselves similarly restrained (I won’t name them; I have no wish to pick a fight, and the names don’t matter as much as the behavior). At least one well-known blogger openly advertises on his front page how much he charges to blog about a product. Another blogg accepted samples of moderately priced merchandise to write about it. Then, when the advertising agency that connected them with the manufacturers changed the rules on them but continued to invite them to participate in such campaigns, they were conscience-free enough to complain of maltreatment and spamming. Others also complained about spamming by the same advertiser, but expressed wishes that they could have qualified to take part in such a campaign.

To say the least, these people live in a very different ethical universe than me – and, by extension, than other professional journalists. And, much as I hate to say it (since they all seem decent enough people when I’ve met them socially), their definitions of acceptable behavior makes everything they write unreliable. Unless they announce that they’ve changed their ways, how can I know that what they write is a honest opinion, and not a bought one? Even if they’re writing on an innocuous subject, I’ll always wonder if their opinions are tainted.

Am I being too rigid here? Nobody else seems to be bothered by such behavior, so why should I be? Maybe my self-mocking description of myself as a modern Puritan has more truth than I realized.

All the same, I keep thinking of the comedian Bill Hicks’ comment about people who do product endorsements: “Do a commercial, and you’re off the artistic roll call. Every word you say is suspect, you’re a corporate whore. End of story.”

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