Thursday, July 9, 2009

Takin' Care of Business

The Associated Press recently published a report about how the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may begin regulating blogs, possibly as early as later this summer. This news has the blogosphere talking, with folks chiming in both for and against the likely development. The FTC felt compelled to make this move because of apparent conflicts on interest, undisclosed commercial/business relationships, and other actions that give the appearance (and in some cases, the reality) of impropriety on the part of a blogger.

More specifically, the FTC is concerned about instances in which bloggers who are reviewing or promoting products have accepted large free gifts (expensive products, trips to Europe) or substantial financial compensation from the companies who make those very products. It doesn't take a graduate of Ethics 101 to see where this scenario quickly runs into trouble, all the more so when a blogger doesn't disclose this information or relationship to his or her readers, who may be under the impression that a blog is fully impartial and unbiased.

Part of the challenge with blogs is that anyone can have one - it's an open, organic, viral, democratic sort of community in which anyone who wants to have a voice can have one. That's not really where the difficulty is. The challenge, rather, is that there are essentially no regulations governing blogs, and no standard code of conduct or ethics about how bloggers should maintain their blogs and relate to their readers. An additional challenge, I think, is that blogs sit across a spectrum, serving one (or several) of many purposes. They can be personal, like a diary. They can be editorial, as a form of journalism. Or they can be business-oriented. Each of these perspectives may have vastly different motives behind the content they provide, and to whom.

No Gluten, No Problem has a foot in each of the three categories, I think. We're personal, in the sense that we use personal anecdotes and stories to share insights into gluten-free living. We're business-oriented, in the sense that we do have some ads on the blog, and earlier this year, we plugged our forthcoming cookbook in a post. But primarily, I view NGNP as a form of gluten-free journalism. Our primary mission is to share practical information about gluten-free living, recipes, and product, restaurant and bakery reviews.

As a professional journalist outside the world of NGNP, editorial integrity and transparency are things I take very seriously. What's more, blogging is a unique form of media that builds relationships between the blogger and a blog's readers. That relationship, especially where GF information and reviews are concerned, is one built upon trust. And maintaining that trust is paramount. To that end, I thought it very worthwhile to establish a clear set of guidelines pertaining to NGNP, so that you know exactly where we're coming from.

Product Reviews
We frequently review a variety of GF products, and we do accept complimentary product samples from companies that would like to see their product featured on NGNP. However, our acceptance of product samples is not a guarantee that a product will be reviewed on NGNP. (For example, one company sent us quite a large package of product samples, but upon inspecting the ingredients label, the "gluten-free" products were also listed as "may contain wheat." This doesn't conform to our strict standards for gluten-free foods, and so we declined to review the product.) Further, whether we have purchased a product to review or accepted a free product sample from a company, our ultimate loyalty is to you, the reader. If we like or love a product, we'll say. But if we dislike a product, we will also say so plainly (and we're not shy about recommending an alternative that we think is better...whether a competitor's product or our own recipe). Finally, we never accept additional "gifts" from a company - we limit freebies to product samples that we review on this blog.

Restaurant Reviews
Unless otherwise specified, whenever we review a restaurant, we have eaten their anonymously and paid for the meal (see, for example, our review of Beau Jo's Pizza or Maggiano's Little Italy). This is standard practice in conducting restaurant reviews. In a minority of cases, however, a restaurant may ask us to come in and sample their gluten-free menu. In these instances, we will clearly indicate this with language such as "XYZ restaurant invited us to sample their menu..." (see our review of The Corner Office, and the opening line of the third paragraph, for an example)

Sponsors, Affiliates, and other ads
Blogs can make money in a variety of ways. Just three examples are: paid advertising, click-through ads (if you click on a linked ad and navigate to the advertiser's website, the blogger gets a small kickback), or profit sharing (if you navigate to a sponsor's site and buy a product, the blogger receives a percentage of the sale). Sometimes, those relationships between advertiser and blogger aren't always clear, and you don't know whether you're simply following a link, or following some form of an ad. The content of our posts are always content, pure and simple. Any links we include in a post are merely hyperlinks that navigate to other posts or other websites. There's nothing more to it.

We do, though, carry some advertising (i.e. Foodbuzz). Advertisers are clearly identified in the right-hand column of our blog, and we don't accept just any ad indiscriminately. We only accept ads that we feel are consistent with the core mission of NGNP. We'll likely experiment with adding a select number of additional advertisers. However, if in the future we find that ads are distracting from the central message of NGNP, are compromising our objectivity or impartiality, or if they're causing you, our readers, to question the site's integrity, then we'll pull the ads down and return to a pure NGNP format.

And that's really all there is to it. No gluten. No problem. No secrets.

- Pete


gfe--gluten free easily said...

This is a good post, Pete. I've been following the discussion myself. I haven't done any reviews or published any recipes that include comped products yet. But, as I've mentioned to you, I've received some products. I've never solicited any of those complimentary items and I'm clear that if I write a review, I'll write an honest review like you guys have been. However, here's my concern from my own perspective. How much are we subconsciously affected by freebies? For example, I was given several products by one commercial vendor recently for my support group meeting. I was curious, so I sampled a few before our meeting. I thought they were all totally awful. I told my support group so before I served them, but they all loved the products. Plus, I know the maker of these products is a great family organization that is well respected and appreciated in the gf community. They were very kind in their emails and extremely generous with the amount they sent. (And, incidentally, you have reviewed this company's products and given them pretty good reviews.) What will I do? I'll just stay clear of publishing any reviews of their products. On the one hand, if I publish a review I feel like I'd be almost unfairly slamming them after they were so generous. And, the products they sent me were for the support group's use, not for a blog review. On the other hand, would it be helpful to others to share my true assessment? The answer for me I think is that I've stated before that I don't intend to do product reviews and I'll stick with that. But, for others, I think the waters are murkier than we'd like to think. Yes, we can all share that the products were complimentary, but to what degree (even a tiny bit) are we affected by other factors?


peterbronski said...

Hi Shirley... Thanks for adding to the discussion. You bring up a number of good points.

I think that some bloggers (and reviewers in general) may be subconsciously affected by complimentary product samples that are submitted for review. I feel pretty strongly that I'm not one of those people. I've always been a straight shooter who tells it like it is, and any companies that submit products for review on NGNP know that we can be tough critics (in fact, more than one company has submitted to us precisely for that reason, because they both value our opinion and believe we've built a strong trust with our readers).

It's a fairly common practice for publications to accept complimentary products to review, and then return those products to the company or donate them to charity after the review. This happens with everything from cars to outdoor gear to perfume. Because they don't retain the product, they derive no benefit, thus making the review "legit." This practice obviously isn't possible when we're talking about food. Once you've reviewed it's...umm...eaten. As long as a reviewer is only accepting products to review, and not accepting additional perks (i.e. coupons, gifts, money), then in my eyes, things are in the clear.

With the example you share, I think there's also a risk in witholding negative reviews, for whatever reason. This doesn't apply to you, because you're not reviewing products (yet, as you say). But for other bloggers, if they post only positive reviews, but withold negative reviews for fear of offending the reviewee, then they've introduced bias into their reviews by error of omission. Readers only see positive reviews, and are never aware of the negative ones. It's like a movie critic who only writes about the movies he or she loves. For me, there's no reservation about praising a company for certain attributes (donations to support groups, environmental ethic, whatever) and criticizing other attributes (the foods they make). It's all part of the package, good and bad.

In the end, it all comes down to transparency. If a blog is open and honest with it readers, those readers can determine for themselves if they're concerned about bias, intentional or unintentional. It's when relationships between blogger and product reviewee are hidden, obscured or otherwise witheld that the waters get murky.

Of course, the other solution is to accept no advertising and to write no reviews, and blog solely for blogging's sake. Some GF bloggers do just that. Everyone has their niche and their angle on the GF lifestyle, and each contributes to the community and the discussion. That's a good thing. And for the time being, I think that the relatively small (but growing) size of the GF community, coupled with the fact that we're all overcoming a shared health challenge, has meant that mosts GF bloggers are motivated by some element of altruism (which has kept GF blogging largely on the up and up). As the GF market expands, though, money will surely figure more prominently in the discussion, and that's when we'll have to be more careful and transparent than ever.

Cheers, Pete

gfe--gluten free easily said...

Hey, Pete--I appreciate your long and thoughtful reply. First, to be clear, in no way am I implying that you or others have the issues I do with reviews. I'm just a bit of a softie. ;-) And, second, I do greatly appreciate your reviews and the reviews of others, for myself personally, and to share with members of our support group. I agree that all of us who blog gluten free provide support in different areas, and I actually love that. I go to different blogs when I am looking for different information ... sometimes reviews, sometimes recipes, sometimes health alerts, sometimes product reviews, and so on. Finally, I agree that most of us are in this for altruistic reasons, trying to share what we've learned with others and trying to help others avoid negative experiences we've encountered (whether they are related to health, products, etc.).

Keep on sharing the variety of posts you've shared all along! That's why I come here. And, I supposed I will be doing my first review of sorts very soon, as I am offering up a book as a giveaway thanks to the authors. I wouldn't be doing that if I didn't think it was a good book and I will be doing a brief write-up on it. In this case, that's something I feel comfortable in doing.

Congrats on being chosen one of the top 13 gf blogs by Tiffany of the Denver Examiner--awesome!