The “new” ToughSledding features posts on topics discussed in my classrooms at Kent State. This one supports a lesson on “conflict of interest” for a class called “Ethics & Issues in Mass Communication.”
Update, 4/23/09, 9:50 p.m. Wall Street Journal focuses on the issue of paid pitchmen in the blogosphere. Seems this debate is about to go mainstream. Could get interesting.
I respect the invisible wall that divides a newsroom operation from the advertising office. Sure, the wall can be porous at times, but credible mainstream media outlets work hard to ensure that marketing dollars don’t taint the integrity of the news.
Most of the time this policy works well. For example, credible auto writers don’t accept free cars, and trusted fashion writers don’t accept high-priced suits and handbags. To do so is a “conflict of interest” and violates journalism ethics. Why? Because freebies of significant value have he potential to corrupt both writer and message.
Such rules don’t hold in the blogosphere. But remember that blogs aren’t mainstream media. A few days ago, Top-100 blogger Chris Brogan wrote in defense of sponsored posts. Another popular blogger, Josh Bernoff (Groundswell) also has supported the idea of paid posts and sponsored conversation. Both writers insist that sponsored blog posts must include full disclosure, and this one from Brogan’s Dad-o-Matic shows that he walks the talk.
I’m not surprised that respected “citizen journalists” like Brogan and Bernoff are OK with sponsored blogs. After all, social media has turned the communication world upside down. So who’s to say that the ethics policies of traditional media should apply to bloggers?
There’s room for a lively debate on this issue. And like so many things in life, there are two sides to the story. Let’s look at them quickly.
In defense of sponsored blog content
- Bloggers gotta eat. If trading on their credibility helps them earn extra dough, they’re entitled. A blog post isn’t a page-one news story. It’s one person’s opinion. The professional standards of journalism don’t fit here. The blogger has no responsibility to be balanced, and damned few are.
- Blogs are proprietary. The sites belongs to the writers. If readers don’t like sponsored posts, they can say so in a comments or simply stop reading. In Web 2.0, a blogger’s credibility is an individual judgment, not a collective one.
In opposition to sponsored posts
- Because the blogger benefits directly from the largesse of his/her sponsor, the resulting post may be slanted. Even when sponsors insist that paid bloggers act independently, we can never be sure they will. As such, every sponsored post is suspect, regardless of the blogger’s reputation.
- Smart bloggers are careful to disclose sponsorships at the top of their posts. But transparency isn’t the same as authenticity. Discerning readers are less likely to trust a sponsored post than an “organic” one. Some critics of sponsored posts say the practice devalues the entire social media space.
In ethics class we call this a dilemma, since both sides have tenable arguments.
My take? So long as sponsored bloggers clearly disclose their lack of independence, there’s no ethical breech. And that disclosure belongs at the top of the post. Research indicates that most online readers scan content and often don’t read beyond the first few paragraphs, and every reader should see the disclosure statement — every one. (In this post, the disclaimer comes at the end. Chances are a lot of readers never saw it. The post wasn’t “sponsored,” but the author was not independent of the topic.)
I don’t read sponsored content. For me, the inherent conflict of interest diminishes its value. But I don’t begrudge bloggers who accept sponsored posts though SM marketers like Izea, or those who use blogs to promote the work of clients or employers. Social media is an open system, and there’s plenty of room for everyone. I hope readers are attentive enough to see the difference.
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The comments following Brogan’s post about sponsored content make for lively debate and illustrate a range of views on the topic. You know, if I had that guy’s blog traffic, I’ve have to quit my job to keep up! Hell, I might need a sponsor!