The media landscape is getting incredibly hazy. The line between sales and content is not only blurred--in many cases, it's completely merged. You may have noticed that respectable news orgs now regularly have links at the bottom of articles to other "articles you may have missed" from weird websites you've never heard of. This is one of the more recent techniques. Another is the concept of "native advertising"--text-based ads that look like actual articles but are written by advertisers--is now so established that even the Gray Lady does it. The ethics of journalism are being completely overhauled. Bloggers fall in a different category, but that doesn't mean that you as the reader shouldn't expect a ethics-free landscape of secret promotion and graft.
Just this morning I got an email from Craft Marketing,
a company created to promote beer in the digital realm, and they
invited me to sign up for a program wherein they'll ship me beer,
presumably on the assumption that I'll write about the beer--and
implicitly, write favorably about it. I'm actually going to sign up for the program, and you may like to know why. What ethics do I hold myself to?
There are currently nine jillion breweries in the
world--thereabouts. I am a natural bottleneck in the flow of potential
stories because I can't drink nine jillion beers. I have never asked to
be put on a brewery's mailing list, but a few have asked to put me on
theirs (I get everything from Widmer and Deschutes and occasional
disbursements from Portland, BridgePort, Goose Island, Ninkasi, Crux,
Double Mountain, Fort George and others). If I'm at a brewery, someone
occasionally puts a pint in front of me gratis or presses a bottle in my
hand. My rule is this: I will drink any beer (or cider) a company
sends me, but no promises that I'll discuss or review it, and definitely no
promises that I'll discuss it favorably. It's a relationship I'm
comfortable with. The brewery makes sure to get their beer at the front
of the line so that it will pass through my bottleneck--but that's it.
I try to make sure always to reveal whether a beer has been supplied by
a brewery so readers can judge.
Oh, I accept books for review, too, with all the same rules. For what
it's worth, getting samples is completely typical in the world of
media. I suppose because samples could be construed as "payment" to
unfunded bloggers, the onus to admit you received samples is greater for
the blogger than the newspaper. But you should recognize that
newspapers get tons of books and beers, too.
I don't solicit these and will reject them if people offer to send them along. I just don't do product reviews.
This is going to start sounding repetitive, but giving me
free access to an event only means I'll cover it, not that I'll cover
it favorably. I get free mugs and tokens for the Holiday Ale Fest and
OBF, but I pay to get into most of the others, like Cheers to Belgian
Beers and the Fruit Beer Fest. If you want to ensure a writer attends
an event, comp him.
I think that covers most of the circumstances. Distilled, the general
rule is this: accept invitations and samples, but disclose them. I like
to think I maintain my objectivity reasonably well, but by disclosing
these relationships, you the reader get to be the final arbiter.
This is the hardest one to know how to handle. I get
incredible access to breweries and cideries, and that definitely
influences me. If a brewer walks me around her joint and indulges my
questions for two hours and then we retire to the pub to taste and
discuss the beers, that influences me; it just does. There's really no
way around this, and the trade-off might not look so good if you don't
understand the alternative. By being able to see facilities and chat
with the people who make the beer and cider, I get a much deeper
understanding of their products, and I pass that along to the reader.
On the other hand, if I don't do a tour, you get a completely unbiased
opinion--and one with 90% less information.
I try to be as transparent as possible about my experiences. Sometimes,
the junkets come with considerable bennies. The last two I enjoyed
were in Seattle to see Pyramid (free train, lodging, food, and beer) and
two weeks ago when BridgePort gave the media a big tour of their ops
along with free beer, breakfast, and lunch. As with the beer samples,
though, these arrangements buy my attention, not my love. Or anyway, I
do my very best to keep it that way. I'm guessing my pieces on Pyramid and BridgePort weren't exactly what those breweries wanted when they drew up the plans. Again, transparency is critical.
There are junkets I won't take. When I was in negotiations for my cider
book, I had to pay for a European trip. The publisher suggested that I
get a sponsor; recently, another writer had Diageo
arrange for a European trip for a different book. I absolutely refused
a set up like that. Instead, I did a bunch of research and selected
the cideries I wanted to go to. I wanted to write a book about the
world's best cideries, not the best cideries that would underwrite my
trip. One of them offered to put me up during my stay, and I agreed--by
that time, I'd already decided on the trip. A different cidery had an
onsite guest house and they didn't offer to pick up the tab, and I happily paid full freight and stayed there anyway.