Ethics and Blogging

January 11th, 2007
Blogging Essays, General

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This is written by Haasim Mahanaim

The so-called “Microsoft Scandal” began when Microsoft and public relations firm, Edelman PR, gave 90 influential bloggers high-end laptops. The machines were powered by Microsoft’s yet-to-be released operating system, Windows Vista. The computers were accompanied with a letter (or a phone call) that described the laptops as a “present” with “no strings attached”. Bloggers were free to keep the machines or give them away. They were told that they had no obligation to review Microsoft’s new operating system – let alone provide a favorable one. When news of the giveaway became public, it sparked a divisive debate about the ethical obligations of bloggers.

Internet entrepreneur, Jason Calcanis, was one of the first bloggers to call the giveaway a “bribe”. [1] On his blog, Calcanis wrote, “The bloggers who go down the road of free products will learn, over time, that their credibility takes a hit. In some cases folks might get away with it, but in the long term most folks will get caught and their reputations will suffer.”

However, prominent bloggers like Robert Scoble, called the PR stunt “an awesome idea”. Scoble shrugged off concerns over conflicts of interest by invoking the words, “full disclosure”. But full disclosure doesn’t eliminate the unperceived and subconscious affects of receiving a gift.

Many of the bloggers who received a free laptop quickly disclosed the details of their gift while unabashedly using words like “giddy” [2] and “joyful [3]. Are we to believe that these giddy and joyful people will be able to write impartial and unbiased reviews of Windows Vista? (Not to mention those bloggers who will go on to review Windows Vista without disclosing how they gained access to the software.)

There have been numerous half-hearted attempts at establishing a code of conduct for bloggers. But bloggers are unable to (or uninterested in) adhering to any rules of conduct.

When (published by Jonathan Dube) proposed A Blogger’s Code of Ethics, the reader response was mixed. Readers like, Steve (no last name provided) wrote, “Codes of Ethics are usually created when snobby people are pissed off about something and are too weak to compete on a level playing field.”

Another comment, signed by “Rooty”, read, “What did you use as your foundation for this so-called ethics code for bloggers? Reading this, it looks like nothing more than your own personal opinion. What right do you have to foist any of this on anyone?”

The opening passage of A Blogger’s Code of Ethics left “it is up to individual bloggers to choose their own best practices.” The list was based upon principles from the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Various journalistic associations have similar guidelines. And most journalistic institutions have their own customized ethical guidelines.

National Public Radio’s guidelines state that their “journalists cannot keep any equipment or items of value provided by a company for test-use for story purposes.”

Online technology magazine Red Herring has a similar policy. Meanwhile, The New York Times’ ethical policy spans over ten thousand words. Several thousand of those words are dedicated to guidelines for receiving products and accepting gifts based on a reporter’s beat (sports, arts and entertainment, etc).

Yet, online writers have made bold claims about the realities of professional journalism.

“To listen to the outcry, one might think that this kind of thing doesn’t happen everyday,” wrote, Ken Fisher, writer for the popular technology web site, Ars Technica. “Well, it most certainly does.” [5]

Fisher went on to write, “Do you really think Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal goes to some secret underground Apple Store to buy his hot new iPod to review a month before it’s even announced?”

Fisher’s comment was one of many lazy arguments, from various writers, that relied on baseless assumptions and fuzzy logic.

The Wall Street Journal’s code of conduct clearly states that employees cannot accept any gifts beyond a “nominal value”. [6] A three hundred dollar iPod is hardly a token giftÑlet alone a two thousand dollar computer.

If Apple sends out a free iPod for review, it becomes the property of the magazine or newspaper publishing the review (instead of the journalist who is reviewing it). This simple distinction seems to be lost on many bloggers because they usually act as both the editor and writer for a publication.

Admittedly, simply having a set of rules and guidelines does not preclude the possibility of making mistakes. But, while the mainstream media struggles over ethical dilemmas, bloggers are seemingly content with their self-proclaimed superiority and infallibility.

A public relations agency would have never given a respectable journalist a free computer to keep as their very own. (Nor would such a journalist be allowed to keep such a gift according to the ethical guidelines of his employer.) Edelman PR banked on the flexible morals of underpaid bloggers, and it paid off.

When Long Zheng received his present, he had no qualms stating his plans to keep the laptop.

“[Bloggers] put a lot of hard work into their blogs and most of the time receive little or no reimbursement for their highly valuable work. I wouldn’t think it would be inappropriate at all, in fact only fair that these bloggers deserve to keep these machines as Ôrewards’.” [4]

Bloggers are entitled to profit from their work. But how absurd would it have been if these bloggers received a letter that read: “Hey, we just thought you might want to know that Windows Vista is coming out soon. Oh by the way, here is a copy of Windows Vista and a cheque for $2000. No strings attached. Cheers!”

There is nothing ambiguous about the actions of Edelman PR and Microsoft; their “present” was clearly a bribe. It is their job to persuade influential people into recommending their products. But it is the duty of a good journalist to contemplate the nature of the gifts he receives. A free movie ticket or a paperback novel or a music CD is hardly analogous to receiving a $2000 computer. The distinction only becomes ambiguous when trying to rationalize greed.

Of course, one could argue that bloggers do not claim to be journalists. But, whether they like it or not, bloggers assume many of the roles of a journalistÑdisseminating information, monitoring powerful people and institutions, and spreading the truth (as they see it). And much like journalists, bloggers are being sued for libel and asked to reveal the names of their anonymous sources. And when under fire by the courts and corporations, bloggers invoke the protective shield that the title “journalist” provides. Yet when asked to fulfill the difficult and serious responsibilities of a journalist bloggers cast their shield aside, claiming they never wanted it in the first place.

[1] Microsoft Vista Ferrari Payoffs–horrible move.

[2] Acer Ferrari 1000: The Unboxing

[3] Microsoft Sent A Free Laptop With Windows Vista

[4] Sex, lies, and the Microsoft blogger laptop scandal

[5] Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Code of Conduct

[6] Microsoft hands out Ferrari’s to bloggers




  1. Rirath (14 comments.) says:

    I like Steve (No Last Name Provided). He even gets a comma before his name. :)

    I have to disagree with points made here, especially “The distinction only becomes ambiguous when trying to rationalize greed.” That said, at least the argument is fairly thought out.

  2. Matt (23 comments.) says:

    Ethics in blogging is a nice idea. Leave to those who don’t understand it to rip it apart and or feel threatened by it. If I’m reading a blog, I want to know that the opinion of the person writing it is just that – an opinion. I can no more trust his opinion than I can trust what he wrote in his about section.

    Taking a blog post at face value is as good as taking it with a grain of salt; whether that person was compensated or not, they still have an opinion. This opinion is no more invalid than if they had not been compensated. The compensation only sweetens the deal.

    But even if the deal is “sweetened”, it wouldn’t change whether or not the product in question for the post in question had flaws or not. Most people can see through a smoke screen. This is why they are coined “influential”. That, and the fact that a larger number of readers happen to agree or at least respect their opinion.

  3. knsheppard (1 comments.) says:

    Do reviewers of books compromise their neutrality by receiving the books they review for free? I don’t think so. And reviewing is vital to the scholarly community. It seems to me that Microsoft has every right to do what it wants to get its product out, including offering free computers and allowing bloggers to review them be they positive reviews or not. It doesn’t even strike me as a particularly ethical issue in the first place.

  4. juice says:

    An awful lot of bloggers like to pretend that they’re journalists, but their actions (gift receiving, in this inst.) and their writing says otherwise all too often.

  5. Scott (1 comments.) says:

    A generally well-done essay with some roughness in terms of style and argument, I can really see where you’re coming from.

  6. GregA says:

    I don’t see the problem. When you compare this to the factless Vista bashing that has gone on in the anti-vista blogging community, Microsoft looks much more ethical. As far as I am concerned, right now the IT journalism profession has less credibility than the MSM who ignored all the facts in the lead up to the Iraq war. The “journalists” who have been bashing vista have been telling outright lies about Vista. Shouldn’t integrity be more important than page views?

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