Monday, October 10, 2011

Blogging disclosures, again (Gothamist, Eater, Jaunted, Grub, and LAN Airlines)

Both Medacity and Gothamist have written about the latest tempest in a teapot regarding blogger disclosure.

For those who aren't familiar with the ethical issue involved, James Johnson's Medacity post encapsulates it:

While it’s not illegal to accept gifts, money and other rewards for creating blog posts on your blog/website, the FCC does require a full disclosure and your readers typically want to know if a post it paid for by an outside party.

Let's start with the Gothamist's own story, courtesy John Del Signore:

Why just the other week we were invited to eat for free at a restaurant where LAN Airlines was planning a surprise publicity stunt in which every customer would be given a free roundtrip airplane ticket to "a destination of their choice" in South America. We were invited to sit at the LAN VIP table and share this truly exciting news with our readers!

For whatever reason, Gothamist didn't attend, although three other blogs - Eater, Jaunted, and Grub - did. So what was the issue with the bloggers' attendance at the publicity stunt?

What we didn't realize is that the media who attended also got free airline tickets, too.

At this point, there are several possible ways that a blogger could act - assuming, of course, that the blogger attends the event (Gothamist didn't have to make these decisions). The blogger could refuse the airline tickets. The blogger could accept the airline tickets, fully disclose this in the blog post, and state how the gift affected or didn't affect the blogger's coverage. The blogger could accept the airline tickets and just keep quiet.

According to the Gothamist, Eater's Amanda Kludt added a disclosure - but by the time the story got to Yahoo News, the disclosure wasn't there. Grub Street's Jenny Miller did not accept the trip.

Eventually, Kludt decided not to accept the trip either, offering the following statement:

I never really thought I'd have the chance to use the LAN ticket due to financial and time related constraints, so I didn't put a lot of weight on the issue. But in order to save myself (if I can be saved) from moral bankruptcy and the accusations of payola, I will officially and indubitably surrender said ticket to assure it doesn't get used.

As far as the Eater post is concerned, I would have written about the event regardless of my ending up with a ticket and did not attend with the expectation of getting one. It was a nice story about a lot of nice people getting a nice surprise.

Jaunted also added a disclosure:

"All words written were my own, I was not pitched this in any way except that it was happening and was a secret. I expected nothing and was promised nothing. I attended to connect with existing contacts, not because of any giveaways."

I'm unclear as to whether Jaunted accepted the trip, but at the end of the day the other two blogs did not.

It's interesting to note that in this case, the blogs went far beyond what the FCC requires. If all three had disclosed that they received trips also, they would be on solid legal ground. However, some (or all) of the blogs decided that disclosure didn't go far enough. To keep their readers happy, the bloggers decided that it would be best to refuse the trip, just to remove any question about whether the airline tickets influenced their coverage. (However, as far as we know all of the bloggers ate the free food that was offered.)

The people that concern me in this story are the people who arranged the promotion for LAN Airlines. Who decided that it would be a wonderful idea to provide thousands of dollars in airline tickets in exchange for event coverage? Of course, this is nowhere near the $200,000 that Casey Anthony got for her story - whoops, I mean the $200,000 that Casey Anthony got for PHOTOS, and the payment for those photos had absolutely nothing to do with her exclusive interview wink wink.

But I'll give James Johnson the last word:

In the ever changing landscape of professional blogging writers protect themselves and their blogs when they remember one very simple and practical rule…disclosing everything!
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