Bloggers Need to Come Clean

Microsoft raised eyebrows in December when it offered free laptops to some of the bloggers who review their products. Journalist and blogger Scott Kirsner discusses the ethical choice bloggers have to make in his op-ed that appeared in Sunday's San Jose Mercury News.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Right now, the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Microsoft raised eyebrows in December when it offered free laptops to some of the bloggers who review its software, and it wasn't the first time marketers approached blogs like this. Reporters, of course, generally follow the ethics rules of their publications and would never accept a freebie. But what about bloggers?

Many of them want nothing to do with the mainstream media and pointedly make clear they are not journalists. In an op-ed in Sunday's San Jose Mercury News, Scott Kirsner, both a blogger and a journalist himself, argues that bloggers have a choice to make: be a source of information that their readers can trust or just an online version of an infomercial. And he says whatever their decision, blogs need to come clean with their readers.

Scott Kirsner edits the blog CinemaTech. He's the author of the book "The Future of Web Video," and he joins us now from the studios of member station KALW in San Francisco, and nice to have you back on the program today.

Mr. SCOTT KIRSNER (CinemaTech): It's great to be here.

CONAN: And we want to invite listeners to the conversation. If you rely on blogs for some of your news or reviews of equipment, would it bother you if those bloggers accepted free gifts from the companies or the people they cover? How do you decide which blogs you can trust and which you can't? 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And Scott, some of the bloggers did accept free laptops from Microsoft, and some of them also disclosed that on their blogs.

Mr. KIRSNER: Yeah, it's true. I mean, one of the points that I make in my piece is that actually I think bloggers are having a much more open conversation with their readers than the traditional news media have ever had in terms of what are the rules of the game here? Are you allowed to accept a laptop worth about $2,000? Can you, if you're a blogger who covers restaurants, can you accept a free meal from a restaurant that wants promotion? Or maybe if you're a political blogger, what are the rules about volunteering for a campaign or making campaign donations?

All those rules have been developed in radio and TV and print media over about 100 years. They've always kind of been a little bit of a secret. You know, there's an ethics policy that journalists have to sign when they work for a newspaper or a magazine. In the world of the blogosphere, though, what's fascinating is that these debates and discussions are happening out in the open, in the comment space on lots of blogs, including the ones that accepted free laptops from Microsoft last month.

CONAN: And does it turn out that the readers of blogs care about this?

Mr. KIRSNER: Well, I think there is definitely a division. With the Microsoft issue, some readers said no, you know, I understand that you're just an individual who publishes this blog about technology. It's okay with me if you take a free laptop. I would do the same thing. And in a way it almost kind of ratified the importance of these bloggers, that Microsoft thought they were influential enough to give them a free laptop.

But there were some comments on a few of the blogs that said, you know, yeah, I feel like you've sold out. I feel like your credibility is gone. Whenever you write about Microsoft now, I'm going to remember the fact that they sent you this free laptop with their new Vista operating system on it, and I'm going to kind of, you know, look askance at anything positive that you might say about Microsoft in the future.

CONAN: And has anybody - have any of these bloggers had a, you know, note - you know, this blog typed on a free laptop from Microsoft?

Mr. KIRSNER: Well, you know, most of them were very straightforward about it, but you kind of got a little bit of this momentum effect, where once a few -there were about I think 100 bloggers that got this free laptop in December, right around Christmastime, appropriately enough; and once a few of them started to disclose it, others felt like they needed to disclose it, too.

So it almost was this, you know, this mob mentality of, you know, if you're someone who got the free laptop, you suddenly felt like, oh gee, I'd better disclose this because other people are starting to talk about it too.

You know, and you could view that as a positive thing, that most of these bloggers do disclose it. A lot of them, though, said I'm keeping it. A few of them said no, I'm going to send it back. And I think there was a third group that actually said I'm going to give it away on my blog, you know, as kind of a promotion for my blog, and that might have some ethical issues around it, too, you know, getting a free laptop from Microsoft and then using it to sort of help build the readership of your blog.

CONAN: We're talking with Scott Kirsner about bloggers and ethics. His op-ed ran yesterday in the San Jose Mercury News. We have a link to the op-ed at our Web site. You can download all of the recent Opinion Page podcasts at npr.org/talk. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I found one of the most interesting things in your op-ed, Scott, was the statement that, you know, if you are influential - and there are plenty of blogs who are influential - if you are influential, they are going to try to influence you.

Mr. KIRSNER: Yeah, I really do think that within the last year or two, we've really started to see marketers and P.R. people realize that these blogs have very big readerships, and just like they send free products or party invitations or other promotional material to journalists and people in TV and people in radio, they really need to focus on these bloggers too.

And you've even got big P.R. firms starting up divisions specifically to focus on bloggers. And you mentioned that I maintain a blog that kind of focuses on the entertainment industry. I definitely do get all kinds of press releases now and occasionally invitations to things, and I think I'm working through these issues too, in terms of trying to be careful about if I've gone to a conference at the invitation of a company, mentioning that, you know, that I'm here with a free ticket.

CONAN: Yeah, if - yeah, there are all kinds of rules about do you accept a fee for speaking to a company who you cover.

Mr. KIRSNER: Yeah, I mean, we did see - it wasn't mentioned in the op-ed piece I ran yesterday, but Maria Bartiromo too, being the focal point of, you know, an ethics quandary about should she have been flying around on Citigroup's jet for free when Citigroup is obviously a company that she covers.

I don't believe that journalists are pure and live in glass houses and never violate ethics rules. Obviously, I think both journalists and bloggers can kind of fall into a trap of, you know, assuming that the reader will trust them no matter what they do, when you really - you know, the best thing is probably to disclose where you have some financial ties or you might be swayed by something that you got for free.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Daniel, Daniel with us from Spearfish in South Dakota.

DANIEL (Caller): Yes. I am a blogger and podcaster for the San Francisco company PodShow, and I realize that although I have a distinct advantage in terms of marketing and promotion, many bloggers do not, nor do they have training as media or journalist professionals.

However, it is in - anybody who interacts with the public in a mass-media forum has a responsibility for full disclosure as to where their money comes from or any type of kick-back comes from, but it's also in their best interest as a media producer to have full disclosure. I think that blogs, once trust is lost - trust is essential for any type of new media communications tool, and once readers lose trust, it does not behoove the blogger to hide or not give full disclosure on any type of financial gain they may have.

CONAN: Yeah, and Scott Kirsner, as you point out, these rules have been developed over many years for the mainstream media, who have editors, and this history, this, you know, precedence to go back (unintelligible), and most bloggers are individuals.

Mr. KIRSNER: Right, and they don't have an ombudsman looking over their shoulders, as many newspapers and broadcast media have. I don't think that a blogger needs to write a 10-page ethics policy. I think they just need to think about hey, this is a conversation between me and the reader that I'm having, and what sorts of things would I disclose in a conversation with a friend?

If I am making a stock tip to a friend and saying, oh, I believe that Acme Corp is a great company, and the stock's definitely going to go up 10 points, I would probably also say, yeah, I happen to own some stock in Acme Company. I wouldn't hide that fact.

So I think thinking about blogging as a conversation, and what would you reveal if you were talking to a friend is probably a good starting point.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks very much.

DANIEL: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And the other point that you make is that the Internet itself is sort of a corrective feedback mechanism.

Mr. KIRSNER: Yeah, and bloggers really do call each other out, just like they call the mainstream media out when they perceive that there's an ethical lapse or, you know, a hazy line between advertising and editorial in the mainstream media. You know, bloggers really do like to be the first to disclose something, and sometimes that which they're disclosing is so-and-so was at this dinner party and went home with a bag of freebies from the company.

You know, I do think, as the caller kind of brought up, that blogging is a really new medium, and we've had decades or in some cases longer to develop a relationship with a newspaper and kind of understand, okay, this newspaper or this TV station has a certain reputation. Bloggers don't have that length of time to develop their reputations.

CONAN: Scott Kirsner, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. KIRSNER: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Scott Kirsner edits the blog CinemaTech. He's the author of the book "The Future of Web Video." He joined us from member station KALW in San Francisco. To read his op-ed and download all of the Opinion Page podcasts, go to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

And this is NPR News.

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