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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Full Disclosure

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?

Beer samples.  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.

Junkets.  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. 

Ads.  Almost everyone takes ads, and should, too.  There's not a ton of money in it if you do the ethically pure thing--Google ads or other products which are placed on your site by a third party--the angels ride your shoulders.  On the other hand, if you solicit ads, it could potentially create the appearance of influence.  I have an idiosyncratic blog and the content is totally unbalanced.  I mention certain breweries WAY more than others.  I have been accused of being "in the tank" for certain breweries.  All well and good--I am in the tank for certain breweries, but it's because I love their beers.  When I write an effusive comment about a beer I've had at Brewery X, I want you to get excited about it.  I don't want you to look at an ad from that same brewery on my website and wonder if the effusiveness was enhanced by ad dollars. I may someday revisit this decision, but for now it seems to work.

Products.  I don't solicit these and will reject them if people offer to send them along.  I just don't do product reviews.

Events. 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.

UPDATE: This post, like so many, had they occasional garbles typical of an unedited post.  I have fixed the ones I noticed.


  1. Transparency is key - for us it's less about whether you accept the junket compared to whether you have been fully transparent about it and any other relationships you've had with that brewery.

  2. Good post. I remember when I was a quasi-journalist for my college newspaper. There were rules about accepting perks in any form. Then, as sports editor, I would go to home football games and have unfettered access to the food and drink buffet in the press box. That was supposedly fine, but I always thought it was a violation of ethics.

    We've talked about these issues and I agree with you for the most part. I think a lot of places that send beer samples expect us to write about it. As you say, receiving a sample only means I may write about that beer. Same goes for events. I may write about an event even if I don't get a free mug and tokens. Getting that stuff just makes it a little easier for me to attend. Regardless, I write what I want. Free or subsidized beer will never interfere with my opinion of a beer or event.

    I have less of a problem with ads then you do, I guess. The Google thing is really a joke unless you're getting a huge number of page views. I don't see any problem with having a couple of marquee advertisers. When I get around to selling those ads, the contract won't guarantee anything other than access to the people who view my pages. That's the only arrangement I'd be comfortable with. I think that could work for you, as well, and I think you're shortchanging the value of your site by not doing it. Oh well.

    One of the realities in the beer media world is that there's a huge gulf between beer writers and beer journalists. Beer writer is largely a promotional role. You accept your free beer and tokens in exchange for regurgitating what the industry feeds you without thought or analysis. Being a beer journalist is more involved. You actually have to ask questions and address issues that sometimes make folks in the industry uncomfortable. There's really no in-between.

  3. Advertisements that are clearly advertisements are fine. It's when they're embedded within a legitimate story, or worse, made to appear as a legitimate story, that it becomes a problem for me. Scrolling through a series of stories and then seeing something that is clearly an advertisement be presented in the same fashion is quite bothersome.

  4. I am not big on the junket thing. Ontario beer bloggers got picked up by limo, flown to Boston, hotels, food and beer with a special visit with Koch just as Sam Adams expanded its line at the LCBO, the worlds biggest liquor buyer. That was pathetic all around. But, perhaps dumber, is that I place ads and don't get money or free beer for them. But I have my limits of ethics. Took a few grand off a firm for a embedded story over a few years. That was a lot of cash. I spent it on my kids and my liquor cabinet. I like samples. I do't even write that many beer reviews any more but I sure like samples. Especially on Friday.

  5. Thanks for writing this, Jeff. Without a central body to encourage ethical best practices for bloggers, I think a lot of (especially young) writers have been mulling over similar issues and making decisions based on what they feel is right, even if those feelings are ethically dubious.

    Transparency reigns as the single most important thing a blogger can aim for, and is representative of that writer's integrity. The whole concept of "selling out" is rooted in compromising one's artistic and ethical integrity, and I think most careful readers notice a breach in the invisible “honesty contract” pretty quickly.

  6. At a recent beer-writer meetup in Washington, D.C., when I noted that I wouldn't be going to SAVOR because I couldn't justify paying the admittance fee, I was told by one attendee: "That's why I'm a journalist."

  7. I totally agree with your disclosure. It is similar to what I post each January as blanket coverage throughout the year, though not as well or thoroughly as you did.