—Michael Keliher, Client Relationship Manager at Fast Horse
In many ways, this debate is purely academic. Some talk about the line separating the revered act of journalism from the pedestrian pastime of “just blogging” as if it might simply have some bearing on the way reporters do their jobs in the future. You know, carry a Flip camera and shoot more video and tweet your face off and whatnot. Others talk about how blogging has ushered in a new era of journalism, one in which publication – in ink, airwaves or pixels – is a hell of a lot closer to the beginning of the journalistic process than the end. Phrases like “fractured audiences” and the “myth of objectivity” are thrown around like peanuts at a Twins game, and the discussions can be fascinating. Ultimately, though, they are of little consequence.
The “I know it when I see it” standard for defining journalism is sufficient for most folks, in most cases. As an everyday consumer of information, I hardly care whether the information I’m consuming was dragged out of the darkness by a “traditional journalist” or a “new-media reporter” or a “blogger” or even a “kid with Twitter.” But when the long arm of the law gets involved, such as when journalist shield laws are invoked or when the FTC weighs in on cases involving its endorsement and testimonial guides, squishy pseudo-definitions don’t get us very far.
(If you’re interested in shield laws, read about the lost/stolen iPhone prototype Gizmodo got its hands on or just ask Josh Wolf. Meanwhile, I’m going to blather on about the FTC…)
The FTC’s revised guides on endorsements and testimonials – a sweeping update to the guides that only in part addresses bloggers – treat bloggers differently than journalists, and it’s more than a purely academic distinction. In a review of the comments the FTC received in response to the proposed changes (before they become officially published guidelines), the commission responded to some concerns:
The Commission acknowledges that bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media. In general, under usual circumstances, the Commission does not consider reviews published in traditional media (i.e., where a newspaper, magazine, or television or radio station with independent editorial responsibility assigns an employee to review various products or services as part of his or her official duties, and then publishes those reviews) to be sponsored advertising messages. Accordingly, such reviews are not “endorsements” within the meaning of the Guides. Under these circumstances, the Commission believes, knowing whether the media entity that published the review paid for the item in question would not affect the weight consumers give to the reviewer’s statements. Of course, this view could be different if the reviewer were receiving a benefit directly from the manufacturer (or its agent).
In contrast, if a blogger’s statement on his personal blog or elsewhere (e.g., the site of an online retailer of electronic products) qualifies as an “endorsement” – i.e., as a sponsored message – due to the blogger’s relationship with the advertiser or the value of the merchandise he has received and has been asked to review by that advertiser, knowing these facts might affect the weight consumers give to his review.
In short: If you’re writing for a traditional media outlet, the FTC assumes people know you’re trustworthy and not shilling for the resorts or car manufacturers or theaters you’re reviewing. But if you publish your work via WordPress or YouTube, you lack that institutional legacy of trust, so you’re held to a higher standard. You might have started writing years before some kid who was just hired by the New York Times, but the kid at the Times has earned, by way of successfully strutting through the paper’s hiring process, the ability to trade on the paper’s reputation for journalist quality. (Side note: Anyone remember Jayson Blair?)
Again, the underlying distinction is that the FTC assumes an audience knows a newspaper writer didn’t get a free trip to the resort she’s reviewing, but no such assumption can be made, according to the commission, with regard to bloggers. I’d argue, however, that people don’t know that about a newspaper writer. Newspapers and other long-standing media institutions have earned the trust of their audiences, and that’s valuable, but that doesn’t mean an outlet’s freebie policies are public knowledge. After all, only half of us can name all three branches of government, for god’s sake. You think the inner workings of a newsroom are common knowledge?
The FTC’s guidelines apparently don’t allow for a blogger who has been respectably and intelligently covering the mobile-technology market for a decade to rely on a policy of not taking freebies and a track record of fair and honest reviews. He must declare as much in each writing because he doesn’t work for Wired magazine. It’s not enough that he has developed an audience who trusts his work just like Wired’s readers trust it; he’s publishing on those new internets, and the FTC needs to protect every single person who could stumble on by.
True, the requirement to disclose isn’t debilitating. Including a disclosure in each post that could be construed as an endorsement or testimonial won’t prevent a blogging journalist from doing his or her job (and it is indeed a job for many). But any policy based on such a faulty distinction, based on the form in which a message is distributed rather than the function of that message, strikes me as a short-sighted solution.
The FTC seems to view bloggers as second-class citizens of the journalism community, but the bloggers will survive. My concern is more with the way in which the FTC views traditional journalists. They’re given a pass based on an assumption of trustworthiness and an assumption that internal policies are widely known. It’s comparable to exempting an incumbent politician from campaign-finance laws in her fourth reelection campaign because she didn’t screw anything up her first three campaigns. Or perhaps a better analogy is exempting her because she’s a Republican or a Democrat while holding Independence and Green Party candidates to a different standard – because they’re not from a “traditional” established party.
What do you think? Does the distinction between does journalist and blogger matter? Should they be treated differently?