Blogger Ethics

| September 15, 2005 | 14 Comments
  • 14 Comments

As many of you noticed (and commented) Shuna’s most recent post reviewing Range generated a lot of controversy over the ethics of blogging, specifically regarding food journalism. I want to make it clear that as KQED’s producer of Bay Area Bites I reviewed and approved her post.

The post generated a strong reaction, with both supportive and critical comments…the most comments ever on a BAB post. What the comments brought up was not whether Range is actually a good or bad restaurant but whether it was ethical for Shuna to review a restaurant where she had applied for a job and had exercised chef privilege to get “special treatment” (i.e. a better reservation); basically, a journalistic conflict of interest. I think some of the commentators assumed she had a free meal on the house and may have been rejected for the job. I thought it was important for her to clarify these gray areas since it was not clear from the post what the story was regarding these issues.

I felt that Shuna was honest about her position and that her “insider” perspective might actually enhance her critique of the food. Others thought differently. Regardless of opinion, this is a good debate on many levels. Jen, our newest blogger, posted the issue on Food Blog S’cool.

Other issues that were brought up:

Do you review a restaurant after visiting it one time and should you review a restaurant when it is in its infancy (before 1 to 3 months have passed)?

To me, the beauty of the blog is that it does not have to follow the strict guidelines of mainstream newspapers and we can exercise some flexibility and get first impressions out quickly. A key factor is being up front about these conditions. Our bloggers need to clarify their position, timing and perspective. Blogging is very much about personal opinion. The opinions expressed by our individual bloggers are not necessarily KQED’s opinions, but as an organization, it does need to have guidelines in place to support KQED bloggers.

Some food for thought and comments…

Should blogs follow the same ethical guidelines as mainstream media?

Since this blog is under the umbrella of KQED, do we need to follow journalistic guidelines that other personal blogs don’t adhere to?

Our bloggers are a diverse group of food professionals but are not necessarily professional reviewers or journalists. They are not paid for their work, they are volunteers. Do they need to follow the guidelines that professional reviewers abide by or does the nature of the blog call for a more personal perspective?

One commentator posted some good questions:
“I think it would be great if you had an article on the ethics of blogging — how it’s different from ‘real’ journalism, how it’s the same, what needs to happen and what are the goals. Is it a blog if it’s under the KQED banner or is it a magazine in blog format? If it’s a magazine, is there an editor? What is the editor’s role? I’m not saying there are any definite answers but this entry/article really points out the need for the discussion. And it would be interesting.
FWIW, I’m not sure there are any absolutes but having your co-bloggers come on and defend your position adds nothing except point out they are loyal and true, which is nice to know not a news flash.”

Interestingly, there was a blogger session last week at the Association of Food Journalists conference that was slated to address some of these ethical issues. On their website they have posted their ethics and food critic guidelines.

However, the guidelines are copyright 2001 (pre-blog) and the AFJ does not acknowledge food blogs as a category in its awards competition, so I am passing these along not as rules that we should necessarily follow, but issues we should discuss.

Some current discussions of Blogger Ethics can be found here:
The cost of ethics: Influence peddling in the blogosphere at USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review
A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics at Cyberjournalist.net
Weblog Ethics at Rebecca’s Pocket

Here at KQED Interactive we are discussing these issues in our weekly content meetings. Since we are new at establishing ourselves in the blogosphere we are in the process of figuring out our position regarding ethics and guidelines.

I would like to get people’s feedback on this issue. I certainly don’t want to deter our bloggers from writing critical reviews or insist they adhere to rigid guidelines. I think the freedom of the blog allows us to have more of an edge, and edginess with honesty is a good thing. The blog’s reviews are extremely popular– especially of new establishments–so it is important to arrive at a consensus of approach that we all believe is ethical yet provides the insight and immediacy of the inside scoop.

I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Related

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Category: Bay Area Bites Food + Drink

About the Author ()

I am the Senior Interactive Producer for KQED's online Food properties. I have designed and produced food-related websites and blogs for KQED including Bay Area Bites; Check, Please! Bay Area; Jacques Pepin's websites; Weir Cooking in the City and KQED.org's Food portal. When I am not creating and managing food websites I am taking photos of Bay Area Life and designing online navigation systems. My professional education and training includes: clinical psychology, photography, commercial cooking, web design, information architecture and UX . You can find me engaged in social media on Twitter @bayareabites and on Facebook at Bay Area Bites. I can also be found photoblogging at look2remember.
  • Bucky

    Hello All:

    As the editor of another of KQED’s blogs, Scene and Unseen, I couldn’t agree more with what Wendy has posted. Scene and Unseen concentrates on art, film and literature. All of the bloggers currently writing for that blog have been published in film magazines and online publications in the past. All have deep backgrounds in independent filmmaking, art criticism and review. Some are professional critics seeking another, more flexible outlet for their thoughts and opinions on culture.

    Two things are really important to me concerning KQED’s blogs. The first is that the bloggers have the freedom to express themselves and their opinions in a variety of ways and on a number of subjects. The second is that, though these are independent bloggers and their opinions are their own, our audience understands that there is someone at KQED guiding this process.

    It may get a bit looser and edgier than other KQED content, but that’s what’s so exciting about blogging and what makes it so vital to the growth and development of KQED as a multi-media organization.

  • c&d

    For all we know there is only one person who had a problem with the Range review, “anonymous.”

    Full disclosure is the key to an ethical review.

    Shuna gave a full disclosure of her interest in the restaurant: readers knew that she applied for a job there; readers knew that she received special “chef” treatment; and readers knew that the restaurant was new. Readers can take the review as they wish in light of the information.

    If anything, I would think the special treatment and relationship with the staff would garner a kindler review than might be appropriate.

    I will also note that I find the argument that a poor review is helpful to a young restaurant — so that they can improve — very weak. A non-public comment would certainly be more helpful. Part of the problem with an on-line review is that in many ways it is permanent. It will always come up on an internet search.

    I also see no reason why someone should wait months to review. Early reviews can be important to consumers thinking of going to a restaurant in its infancy. We should not assume that every restaurant entrepreneur cannot get there act together over a summer. With full disclosure, a reader who thinks 3 months is too soon can simply discount the review.

  • Anonymous

    Reguardless of Ms. Lydon’s status as a “chef”, her comments were not what I would have expected from an organization such as KQED. Ms. Lydon represents KQED, whether you want to admit it or not. I suggest that you find a good, professional writer than rely upon a dissatified culinary professional, who gives a bad name to “chef”, or “pastry chef”

  • Kevin

    “Since this blog is under the umbrella of KQED, do we need to follow journalistic guidelines that other personal blogs don’t adhere to?”

    You should formulate and publish guidelines for reviewers. Whether those quidelines should differ from guidelines used elsewhere is a different issue.

    What is important is that those using your reviews to make decisions have some basis for evaluating what the reviewer says. By publishing these reviews under the KQED banner you have taken responsibility for the readers’ expectations.

  • Train in Vain

    Now, wait a minute. There are some weird things being said here. Such as “By publishing these reviews under the KQED banner you have taken responsibility for the readers’ expectations.” And “Ms. Lydon represents KQED, whether you want to admit it or not.”

    Hold your horses, everyone. When Charlie Rose has Henry Kissinger on to talk about Iraq, is PBS or KQED responsible for what he says? No.

    Bloggers can easily be seen as guests of an organization, just as Kissinger is seen as guest of a program. KQED already says, if you read the left side of this blog, that the opinions of the bloggers are not KQED’s own. This is a forum. This is what media organizations — good ones — do. They give people a voice. Ever listen to that KQED radio show “Perspectives”? Same deal, folks. KQED gives them an outlet, but has every right to say that what those people say do not represent KQED’s views.

    This is a democracy. You have a right to say what you want to say, and good, thoughtful, responsible organizations who have some audience, are doing their civic duty to help you get it out there.

    If you people have an issue with this idea, which is as old as mass media itself, then you are not living under the banner of free speech. If you have an issue with the manner in which this restaurant was reviewed, and you think you can do better, stand and deliver. KQED is obviously inviting people to join this “Blogger Collaborative” of theirs. Sign up and let your voice be heard. Stop griping, start writing, set an ethical example that you see as superior to those you are slamming so contritely, and join the media revolution. Or… um… get off the pot.

    peace, out

  • Anonymous

    Hello,
    A friend forwarded your site to me because it references the Association of Food Journalists and the conference held recently in San Francisco. I am a professional food critic and, along with over 100 of the nation’s food writers, I attended the Association of Food Journalists conference. The session on blogging was interesting because one of the bloggers spent most of her time talking about how she hoped to make a living off of her blog. As long as a blog is a hobby and KQED is posting it as such, I don’t think restaurants or professional critics have an issue with it. But when you start to take compensation and special treatment from establishments, it gets tricky. That being said, I believe it is very rare that a restaurant doesn’t know when a professional critic is in the house. At the conference, San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer wore a name badge and sat in the front row during sessions with Alice Waters and Thomas Keller, both of whom he obviously knew personally. And at an event where chefs from San Francisco’s hot new restaurants served their food, Mr. Bauer was in attendance, name badge and all. Not that it mattered, since most of the chefs seemed to know who he was. Why is this different from a blogger? Because Mr. Bauer is under a code of journalistic ethics, and if the newspaper felt he was seriously coloring a review based on a friendship or special treatment, they could fire him. A blogger has no such boundaries. Professional critics never review a restaurant in the first month and there are good reasons for that – the menu is often still in flux, as is the kitchen and front of the house, so it is unfair to play with someone’s livlihood by reviewing them poorly before they get on their feet. I am always aware, as I write my reviews, that thousands of people are reading them and that what I say can affect the bottom line of a restaurant’s business. I think it’s scary to restaurants that bloggers can post a personal opinion just hours after a meal on a serious media site such as KQED’s and that somewhere, someone is not going to KNOW that the reviewer isn’t a professional. Like it or not, there is a difference between someone who is a lawyer by day and an amateur food critic by night and someone who is a food critic by day and by night and is held to a journalistic code of ethics by their employer. And even though I went to law school for a year before switching to a journalism major and feel I know more than the average person about the field of law, I wouldn’t want someone’s livlihood to depend on me representing them in court.

  • wendygee

    Thank you for the feedback from the AFJ conference. From this debate it is becoming quite clear that there is obviously a distinction between professional food journalists and food bloggers — and that difference needs to be defined to the public.
    Transparency is essential — providing the perspective, details, and circumstances of a post allow the user to judge the content for themselves. Here at KQED Interactive we are formulating guidelines for our blogs that will explain our postion. There will be a link to these guidelines once they are posted on KQED.org.
    Thank you for all your feedback!

  • Anonymous

    You’re welcome Wendy. When I originally posted my comment it was to provide some insight into the AFJ conference and the fact that professional critics often have relationships with the chefs they review. However, this morning I read the review in question and have to tell you that, as a professional food critic and food editor for over 15 years, I found it to be amateurish and irresponsible. If a professional critic wrote an almost entirely negative review and confessed in the story they had applied for a job at that restaurant, they would be fired on the spot, at least at my publication. When Ms. Lydon makes comments like, “It’s August; can’t we use something besides frisee?” it simply comes off as snide, arrogant and completely unhelpful, both to the restaurant and the reader (something that I know my readers would never tolerate).

    While a professional critic might have cursory relationships with chefs and restaurant owners, we would likely not spend an entire review talking about a VIP experience and ticking off the details of that meal as Ms. Lydon did (“As a gift Phil sent us a midcourse of sorrel and cheese ravioli…”), and for Ms. Lydon to comment on the desserts at all was completely unacceptable since she was still in the review process for the job as pastry chef at the restaurant.

    As a journalist, I fully support the First Amendment right of bloggers to publish whatever they want on their blogs, and the Web is nothing if not a giant journal. What makes this post problematic for me is that it resides under the banner of KQED, a respected media outlet, and the writer’s irresponsibility to her subject matter makes me think that KQED is not monitoring this content very closely, which is another huge difference between blogs and professional journalism (at any respectable publication, a story goes through fact checking, copy editing, proof reading and a final edit before it is printed).

    While it is easy to dismiss this situation by saying that Web surfers and bloggers know the difference between amateur and professional food criticism, I and many journalists worry that the line can and often is blurred. Just the fact that Ms. Lydon ends her piece with the comment, “Otherwise this review will be sweet compared to the blows Bauer will strike them with” shows that she believes her critique to be in the same league with a 30-year veteran of food journalism, which is clearly not the case.

    As a side note, I think that KQED needs to look long and hard into the legal issues involved as well. While there is a statement about the opinions not necessarily being theirs, the editors of City Search have found themselves in legal hot water a number of times with restaurants over reviews posted by users that contained “untrue, unedited and potentially harmful” statements.

  • Anonymous

    Different Annonymous here. I completely agree with the above posters’ comments. As a 20 veteran of the restaurant/food/wine business (cook, FOH manager, consultant, and now, writer), I take umbrage at someone taking on the title of restaurant critic (like it or not that’s what Ms. Lydon was posing as) and then not following the basic “code of ethics” that go along with the title. Posting this on a KQED site just adds insult to injury and brings KQED into the fray as a accessory to the restaurant in question possibly losing business over an (in many ways) incomplete and unfair review. Like it or not, KQED ‘s tacit approval certainly adds weight to the bloggers opinions.
    On a side note, the (Bay Area) restaurant professionals of my aquaintence-who are aware of this issue- to a one expressed outrage at the way the review was conducted, and hoped they would not be “reviewed” in a similar fashion by Ms. Lydon under such unorthodox circumstances.

  • Vendil Williams

    This is starting to get truly distasteful. Who are the anonymous flamers who keep coming on here and spouting this nasty stuff? At least admit who you are. I think KQED has responded to this enough. It’s a blog, for cryin’ out loud. If you don’t like this person’s postings, don’t read them anymore.

    You have not made any actual arguments on behalf of your opinion that the review was “incomplete and unfair.” Now you’re just calling names.

    I think it’s time to drop this subject and move on, folks.

  • wendygee

    Note from producer: the post from timestamp: 9/29/2005 1:35pm has been removed because it violated our terms of service:

    http://www.kqed.org/help/website/terms-service.jsp#comment

    From the KQED Discussion and Comment Guidelines:

    Personal attacks, hateful, racially or ethnically offensive or derogatory content, and harassment or threats against other participants of the discussion board, in the blog comments area or featured speakers on the site will not be tolerated. This includes libel or unsubstantiated accusations against another.

  • Andrew Schilling

    I have a question for wendygee. I read a comment from Suhna on another blog where she said you were the one who asked her to do the review of range even though you knew she applied for a job there. Is that true? It seems that maybe the answer to this is to not let the bloggers write reviews under the kqed name since it is as many posters have pointed out a professional media outlet. They can tell people about new places and spread news but if they want to write a critical review, they could say “my review of” and have a link to their personal blog. that way kqed isn’t “sponsoring” them and they can say what ever they want on their personal blog without upsetting anyone. seems to me what most people are upset about is that this is kqed’s web site and that makes the review look like it is more legit. i enjoy reading blogs [that's what i'm doing at work right now! Shhhhh] but i don’t think of them as journalism, they are just fun time killers like most of the internet. I still read newspapers and magazines for restaurant reviews and movie reviews. to each his own, but i do think there shouldn’t be critical reviews on kqed’s site unless there are some guidelines and it is really clear that these are volunteers and not professionals getting paid by kqed.

  • wendygee

    I believe I clarified my position as the producer in this post:
    “I want to make it clear that as KQED’s producer of Bay Area Bites I reviewed and approved her post.” To clarify further…Shuna presented the idea to me and I encouraged her to write about her experience.

    “I think some of the commentators assumed she had a free meal on the house and may have been rejected for the job. I thought it was important for her to clarify these gray areas since it was not clear from the post what the story was regarding these issues.” (You can read her comment on the Range post for details.)

    I perceived her post as a personal critique of her restaurant experience. Most of our reviews do not follow the traditional process of professional restaurant journalism. We have a number of first impression posts that were designed to give readers a personal opinion of a brand new restaurant. Blogging about the opening night is an initial opinion–our intention is not to mimic the Chronicle’s professional food journalism process of objectivity. Blogging is more opinionated — it is the bridge between everyday people checking out the new restaurant down the block and the food critic visiting the restaurant three times after a period of one month. How many people return to a restaurant three times if the first experience is negative? Blogs, Bay Area Bites included, can be that voice.

    The bloggers that write for Bay Area Bites have been selected either because they are part of the Bay Area food blogger community, they have contributed online features to KQED.org cooking, or they have participated in KQED cooking show preparation.
    KQED.org supports citizen journalism and we are creating blogs to provide a forum for people in the community with special interests to express their opinions and share their ideas.
    The blog is an ongoing dialogue between bloggers and the online community. We support freedom of speech and encourage debate but we will not tolerate personal attacks on our bloggers or anyone else.

    Again, as I stated previously, from this debate it is becoming quite clear that there is obviously a distinction between professional food journalists and food bloggers — and that difference needs to be defined to the public.
    Transparency is essential — providing the perspective, details, and circumstances of a post allow users to judge the content for themselves. Here at KQED Interactive we are formulating guidelines for our blogs that will explain our position. There will be a link to these guidelines once they are posted on KQED.org.

  • Cindy Matthews

    A few things worth noting here.

    Someone wrote that the editors of City Search have found themselves in legal hot water a number of times with restaurants over reviews posted by users that contained “untrue, unedited and potentially harmful” statements.

    I read Ms. Lydon’s review. She simply states that she didn’t like what she ate. That is about as subjective as things get, and I can’t imagine how one could challenge her by saying “That’s not true. You *did* like what you ate!”

    I am not saying that anyone is claiming that, but let’s realize, as has been stated here repeatedly, that this is one person’s opion. Go check out the restaurant for yourself. In fact, do so and come back here and write your own review. As wendygee has been saying repeatedly, this is a community discussion. The whole point is to give people a voice.

    Secondly, the suggestion that because Ms. Lydon is writing for a KQED blog, the audience might assume she is a professional food critic, and therefor she should be held to the same standards as a food critic, doesn’t wash with me. KQED’s blog says flat out that the opinions expressed her are those of the bloggers. Just like if you get interviewed for a KQED TV show and you express an opinion on something, KQED didn’t say it, folks, you did. To suggest that such dialogue should be stifled, to keep throwing such angry accusations at an organization just for giving people an outlet for their thoughts, is going to make daring organizations like KQED end their dialogue with the public, and that would be tragic.

    Ms. Lydon is not a professional food critic. The blog doesn’t claim she is. She is a food professional and she writes about her personal experiences. That seems to me the entire point of the blog, and blogging in general. To say that some users might come across her review and think it is the review of a pro critic is kind of silly to me. Yeah, that might happen. But also someone might come across a comment on some political discussion board by some raving looney and assume that what they are saying is factual. It is up to the user to do their own homework, take a look at the source, identify it for what it is, and put intelligent filters on the information they consume. If someone thinks Ms. Lydon is a professional food critic, then they haven’t taken the time to look around the site and see it for what it is. Just as when I read a fact in an article online, I look to see if it is wire news from a reputable source, or opinion. If it is opinion, I look at the source. If I have never heard of the source before, I look it up. And so on. This is called intellectual inquiry.

    The onus is on the reader to determine what they are reading and decide to what degree they will allow it to form their opinions. To suggest that people shouldn’t have the right to express themselves freely because they may be interpreted as representative of specific profession (ie: pro food critics) or specific organization (ie: KQED) is like saying nobody should ever be able to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper who is not a certified journalist. It is anti-free speech and I just don’t agree.

    Now I think I am going to exercise my own free thinking and go make a reservation at Range to judge for myself.

    - CM