Ethics in Journalism and Food Journalism… Why Shouldn’t Similar Standards Apply To All Bloggers?

Here are some interesting internet links on ethics in journalism… I think any serious or amateur journalists, food writers and editors included, (AND BLOG OWNERS AS WELL) should read the relevant parts of at least the first link to the NY Times with respect to gifts, freebies, travel, accomodations, free tickets, being “incognito” to experience as any other citizen would, etc…

The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics and Journalism
Journalism Ethics: Gift and Meal Ethics (covering excerpts from the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, + 4 other papers
You are what you eat : a commentary specifically on food journalism ethics
Statement of Journalistic Ethics by the Daily Press, Inc.
Code of Ethics for the Association of Food Journalists (U.S.)
FTC Guide Regarding Endorsements/Testimonials, and how it applies to bloggers

Basically, what these policies espouse is that journalists, including food writers, SHOULD NOT ACCEPT FREEBIES. And don’t write me to tell me we are different because we are a poorer country. Please. Read and learn. The final link also asserts that bloggers who are paid to write a post are in effect, endorsers, and should follow the applicable laws governing endorsements.

I have posted these links before.


36 Responses

  1. So did Anthony Bourdain pay for his meal either in Bale Datung or your place, or for that matter his meal in the French Laundry? What should be the etiquette for restaurant owners since this is a two way street? Blackmail as what BBB allegedly did is indeed reprehensible, but what about the common practice of hotels to invite journalists to sample their new menus? When a restaurant is featured for a tv segment, they usually provide free food for both the host and crew. Is this considered unethical behavior? Where are these lines to be drawn?

  2. Gerry, the Bourdain team of the “No Reservations” show did insist on paying for the cost of lechons which they consumed, and the staff’s time. They are the ones who contacted me, and initially I thought I was just to help them identify places to try and guide them through the Philippine food scene. For several weeks, I didn’t even know who the Chef Host was, nor the food show. Mr. Bourdain later asked that I cook lechons for them. I hesitated and told them I was not a Chef nor did I have any formal training, and they persisted and of course I agreed to cook them a pig. At the time, we were NOT selling any lechons, and had no intention of selling lechons. The crew and I only began selling lechons a YEAR AFTER the Bourdain crew filmed that episode, and initially only to participate in an organic weekend market of a reader, and we sold 2-3 lechons each Sunday… things for ZUBUCHON evolved from there.

    In the case of my hosting Bobby Chinn of World Cafe Asia, they paid for all the items they purchased while we were on a market visit. I then invited them to my home and put up a merienda buffet and halo-halo buffet. I do not have a restaurant and did not seek their coverage. I happily provided the food, and they did offer to pay all expenses but I declined as there was no commercial aspect to the transaction. That was also the case when I cooked adobo for Eating Asia, another television food program, and again, there was no commercial aspect to the coverage…

    If journalists sample menus and accept meals, they need to disclose that in their articles. But really, its best to pay your own way. The guidelines above are quite clear with respect to the issues you raise.

    And it isn’t only American shows, I might add. I am very happy to report that for Jessica Soho’s show, Ms. Soho has a VERY STRICT policy against her or any of her crew accepting gifts, freebies, etc. and I know this from the three times I have worked with them… it really makes sense. They also make sure to ask if I have incurred any expenses with respect to the segment they are shooting and reimburse with official receipts presented for expenses. The GMA team also paid for my and my crew’s modest lunch at Jollibee, rather than me or the farm owner on whose property they filmed on treating them to lunch. Of course, they did taste the food I cooked. :)

    For me, most of the discussion regarding freebies is simply black and white. Others choose to expand the grey areas for their own convenience, or is it conscience? In every restaurant review I have ever written (and there aren’t that many here in the Philippines) I have paid for my food, or if I were a guest of my siblings, I have noted it. I have also disclosed if the kitchen sent out any dishes we did not order. The products I feature from markets, bazaars, etc. are products I buy. Some vendors do try and insist I take freebies, but I try as hard as possible to avoid that and this line usually works if they happen to have recognized me as Marketman: “I cannot accept freebies, if you do that, I cannot write anything about your product.”

  3. MM, I agree that journalists or independent bloggers in news, food or any other field should be free from any form of actual, potential or even just perceived conflict of interest if they want to maintain their independence. Anybody accepting freebies or any form of economic benefit from an interested party makes his work commercial and not an independent work of a journalist or a disinterested blogger. Gerry, I think Anthony Bourdain is not really a journalist in the strict sense. His shows are commercial shows and I would not expect him to adhere to a strict journalist’s code of ethics. Now, local news segments are a different matter. Local news shows and TV segments are notoriously commercialized in the reporting on lifestyle, entertainment, etc. They are doing that but they give up their credibility (at least to me.) The question is do you want to be perceived as independent and credible? MM simply chose to be one and that is the key to his blog’s success, me thinks.

  4. incidentally, just backread now to your earlier follow-up to your Mad Crowd Media post:

    the last two comments are interesting, and–at the risk of compromising my future credibility as a potential commenter here–i hope not irrelevant ;)

    i fully agree with your sentiments. people can plead business all they want. but hey, Enron was just business too. the brokers and other dealers who had a hand in inflating the balloon that burst as the US mortgage crisis were also just conducting business. just making a living.

    some people just choose the higher choice. some people, if they find they can’t choose the higher choice in a particular field of activity, are so noble–and it’s not that they are so rich, either–as to choose to go into someplace else altogether.

    i have always admired you, MarketMan, for your staunch and consistent stand regarding freebie policy. quite apart from your obvious competence–if i said “expertise” you’d probably just come up with a disclaimer ;) –and enviably wide knowledge and experience of food.

    sorry if this is going off topic, but there are a lot of so-called, self-styled “food bloggers” in this country, and really, very few of them i find actually know what they’re talking about. (of course this minority includes MM!) i think anyone with such actual knowledge–and obviously, actual passion and love for the topic–would never allow something so sacred for them to be defiled by such things as greed unfettered by scruples and masquerading as “just business.”

  5. MM, if Bourdain’s show happened after the launch of Zubuchon, what would you as a host do? Do you accept payment when offered or insist on payment if not? How do you define the lines of gracious hospitality and commercial intent?

    Jerome, Bourdain may noy be a journalist in the strictest sense but you have to agree that his endorsement has as great a commercial effect as best food critics. So where is the difference between a journalist, blogger, or TV host?

    By the way, I recommended Zubuchon to a friend’s dad who comes from Nueva Ecija. Despite the fact that he was proud of the lechon from their province, he emphatically declared it to be the best he’s had. He even ate there for both lunch and dinner on the same day!

  6. To my knowledge, most if not all of the journalists and bloggers who have written about Zubuchon have purchased their lechon. I can think of one or two instances when another foodie writing a book or who was starting a magazine asked permission to come taste the lechon at our lechonan and I think we hosted them for lunch (complimentary) and they were considered absolutely our guests, though I wasn’t in Cebu either of those times. I suspect I will trade lechons with the book writer when I finally get to visit him at home… And we hosted a lunch once to which one of our guests invited two writers who tasted our lechon and later wrote about it. But overall, we have never INTENTIONALLY SOUGHT press coverage, never did press launches, press releases, never payed in cash or kind for visits or press or blog coverage of any kind, etc.

    And surprisingly, we got a LOT of GOOD PRESS COVERAGE nonetheless. So that says a lot to me. If you have a pretty good product, it isn’t necessary to PAY for coverage… A LOT of bloggers provided good (and sometimes not so good) coverage of ZUBUCHON, and NOT ONE of them was compensated in cash or kind…

    If Mr. Bourdain asked me to cook a lechon and I had a business, I am sure he would offer to pay and I would certainly accept. I have NEVER EVER run into a situation where a journalist, blogger, etc. has ASKED us for a freebie… And PR companies haven’t dared approach us either (we are probably too small for them anyway)… :)

  7. Hello, MarketMan. I think there ought to be a regulating agency or organization which will draft and enforce a set of ethical rules/standards which all bloggers like us should adhere to. Parang KBP ng media. Just a suggestion. Self-regulation wouldn’t work here. Corruption is everywhere. Just my 2-cents.

  8. Doc Emer, I would have no problem with that as long as the standards make sense. And all print and television media are likewise held to high standards. At the moment, I find MANY of the articles in newspapers to be a result of travel junkets, free gifts or products, etc. I can’t prove it all, but it certainly seems like it to me. For a concrete example, when I did the episode for Bobby Chinn’s show, World Cafe Asia, I was not paid nor did I pay to come out in that show. I was simply a host. But I did all the research, the work, the tour, the cooking (with my crew) and the hosting of the merienda and market segment. A few months later, a few weeks before the episode was to air, I understand that at least three local newspaper writers were “treated” to an all expenses paid trip to Singapore for the press release to announce the new season of the television series. They later wrote nearly full page articles on the program, and I don’t recall a single one of those disclosing that they accepted an all-expenses paid trip to Singapore… Our writers need to police themselves as well. Newspaper editors need to crack whips as well. It isn’t only once that Mrs. MM and I have been on international flights when well known lifestyle columnists were on board, and weeks later wrote about the airlines and cruise lines they experience on their recent trips… For me, its best NOT TO ACCEPT FREEBIES. Or if the writers do, simply provide full disclosure. For example, at the beginning or end of the lifestyle article, place “DISCLOSURE: The writer was given complimentary roundtrip business class airfare by XXX airlines from Manila to Nanonam, and provided with two nights hotel accommodations before boarding the Titanic and cruising the Atlantic for two nights. They were also rescued gratis by helicopter from the sinking ship and flown to London where they ate 12 meals at various restaurants for free. They returned home with two shopping bags of giveaways valued at approximately $200.” — Now if you read their article, would such disclosure change the way you processed what you just read? It would for me.

  9. All i can say is that I really admire you for your integrity. I hope that many journalists, writers, and bloggers would do the same. Sadly, not many people value this trait. Our children should be taught about the importance of sticking to your principles at all costs. That would definitely lessen the corruption in our Country.

  10. Interesting discussion. I wonder where the ethical lines are drawn on the opposite end of the trfansaction. Is it ethical for instance to offer a journalist a sample in the hope of a (hopefully but not necessarily guaranteed) favorable review knowing fully well that the freebie compromises the writer and then leave the ethical dilemma of whether to disclose or not to the conscience and moral fiber of the writer? Does it matter whether or not the writer is known for his ethical standards? Journalists have the burden of holding themselves to a higher standard because of the nobility of their profession, but tentacion hace la ladron and they are not the only guilty parties in many situations. The perfect anonimity of the michelin rating system appears to be the most foolproof way to ensure the integrity of the entire process/transaction.

  11. F, The anonymity of food reviewers for the New York Times for decades (like Mimi Sheraton et al) was legendary… and I think also helped to burnish their image as a credible source of information… As for restaurateurs who pay journalists/bloggers to buy exposure or favorable reviews, I would put them in the same lot as journalists/bloggers who accept pay per post/articles… It takes two to tango.

  12. In a lot of foreign blogs I visit, the writers do provide full disclosure if companies are sponsoring them. I think that’s a common practice abroad but I don’t think it’s common here in the Philippines.

  13. Gerry, to be called a journalist I think one has to be above any shred of even just a suspicion of a conflict of interest.

    For a blogger or TV host, it will depend on one’s objective. If a blogger wants to be considered as independent then he must adhere to some form of ethical standards. This is not to say that bloggers or TV hosts who accept freebies are automatically unethical or ineffective, but one thing sure is that a habitual “freebie-taker” will have a harder time convincing people to believe them assuming everything else equal.

  14. Looking at local newspapers (such as the Star or the Inquirer), many of the “lifestyle” articles read like press releases. It’s really quite sad.

  15. Jerome, as a food purveyor I make no distinction between the role of a journalist, blogger or tv host. Information whether it come from print, the internet, or tv will have to have equal credibility.

    We’ve done magazines, newspaper, blogs, and tv – all of it completely unsolicited. When we do agree to a feature, we assume the food will be free – and there has never been an offer to pay. We make no demands that they give positive reviews, with the only assurance is the fact that we believe in the quality of our product. So is what we are doing unethical?

    I wonder how Oprah’s endorsements are done? There was a CNBC show called the “Oprah Effect”. They did a story on how Oprah’s unpaid endorsements, which included small specialty food companies, significantly boosted the sales of these companies. If I were to get a call from Oprah’s people asking for samples for their studio audience, would this be considered unethical?

  16. Thanks for highlighting this issue again. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease a few years ago, I began searching for honest information and tips on gluten-free shopping and cooking on the web. Sometime, google “gluten free blog”. The website hits are nothing other than blatant attempts to capitalize on a medically-captive audience, who have few other resources.

    I wish more food bloggers had your integrity. Kudos.

  17. MM , I totally agree with you Journalist , food bloggers should totally NOT ACCEPT FREEBIES!!!!! So that, you can write what you really want ( unbiased opinion) Bec if you accept , even just a hair pin( bobbypin pa) they can use that against or to make you write positve reviews . So, they can attract people to try their food. Simply, this is endorsing them

  18. I think that journalism is a clearly defined profession with clearly defined and published ethics codes. But in the case of blogging, which is a relatively new thing, it should NOT be assumed to be subject to any/all journalism rules. I am not trying to demean blogging/bloggers here, i am just saying that at least for now, blogging can still be anything from an amateur hobby to a major business operation and the content could be anything from highly opinionated nonsense to highly respectable and intelligent postings. Therefore, it is for the public’s (and the blogger’s) benefit that blogs clearly establish their persona, including disclosing whether they have chosen to accept income from advertisers or whether they have chosen to follow pure journalistic ethics. Let the public then decide if they want to read paid endorsements or independent opinions, there is room for both.

    Following this reasoning, advertisers and agents that attempt to offer payments for positive endorsements from clearly declared independent bloggers are indeed attempting to corrupt these bloggers’ integrity.

  19. Gerry, I think you bring up a significant distinction. That fact that you, as a business owner, do not solicit reviews/features, and don’t demand or insist that you only get positive publicity, shows that you are operating above-board.

    The other side of this equation is the media (whether “media” is defined in the traditional sense or includes bloggers and talking heads). The bottom line is that the media must disclose in some form or fashion whether they were compensated for coverage. Such disclosures can take many forms, like explicit statements in blog posts, pages marked “special advertising section” in magazines, verbal statements of sponsorship in radio shows, or acknowledgements in opening/closing credits in TV shows.

    Taking Oprah and her “favorite things” shows as an example, (1) the process by which a product gets selected to be on her show is widely publicized, (2) they only feature products/services that they actually like, (3) everyone knows that a spot on Oprah pretty much guarantees a huge bump in sales, and (4) the companies are named in the credits. These four things in combination make it plainly clear to the audience that each “favorite things” show is a combination of editorial (opinion) and advertising (quid pro quo – Oprah will talk about your product if you agree to give every member of the audience a sample). There’s no ambiguity or deception.

    Ultimately it’s all about honesty. A blogger who professes to write about his or her opinions about things should always disclose whether there was compensation involved, in order to let the reader decide whether the blog post is objective or was colored by filthy lucre. :)

  20. Trouble is that all sampling activities, except those where the samples are giveen directly to the end user, are crafted and staged to get an endorsemnt from the invited guests. Whether the sampling acitvity be in the form of a product launch, prses conference, vendors night etc, every element of the activity is designed to ensure attendance and ultimately elicit a favorable review. There will always be food catered by a famous chef, entertainment provided by a showbiz celebrity, a lootbag of goodies etc etc and you dont need to buy a ticket to attend the sehbang. If we submit that accepting freebies compromises writers, does the sampling environment described above inherently compromise the journalists who are expected to write about it. What is the hosts liability in this case?
    And from the point of view of a business owner who does not want to perpetuate this system of corruption, does the obligation therefore exist to get journalists that he (the business owner) invited to commit to disclose participating in the sampling activity if they (journalists) did not pay for it? In what way do the rules of engagement change if the sample was solicited by the journalist who disclosed before receivig the sample that he may write a good or a bad review?
    Are business owners consrquently precluded by ethics from holding such activities (where cost of the sampling is borne by the business owner) for parties who by the very nature of their professions have a moral responsibility to protect their integrity and credibility? Should a product launch be therefore confined to the office conference hall, with coffee, doughnuts and a bag of product literature.
    I was speaking to a colleague who had very strong opinions about Salcedo’s expose’ til I reminded her that as business owners and business managers, we often take pride in creating these very situations and measure our success in terms of the popularity of the event and the good press coverage that comes after.

  21. I find it very bothersome to read in papers paid ads placed side by side with “articles” on the same subject that are always favorable to that subject. I don’t recall any disclosures written on those “articles, so the endorsement isn’t clearly stated as such. I would dare say that the “article” attempts to masquerade as an objective story on the subject.

    It has become so common even in the major dailies, with top of the line advertisers. As a reader, I’ve learned to just ignore most of these “endorsements-disguised-as-news” . But if it’s a practice allowed by news management, I think it compromises the reputation of the newspaper for objectivity.

  22. “Wow, an advertisement masquerading as an article.”
    This was my comment re a recent post on favorite Filipino condiments where brand names were used unnecessarily. For example, vinegar would have been enough, since it was about favorite condiments and not about top favorite vinegar brands. Not here of course.
    I was trained by journalists the likes of Dean Malay and IP Soliongco at UP, and Irwin Silber of the New York Guardian, etc. That’s why I get sick to my stomach at envelopmental journalism, and now envelopmental blogging.

  23. Gej, those articles are called advertorials. They are usually written by the advertiser themselves. You will note that there are no bylines on the article. I have on occassion used these methods since the newspapers sometime offer these advertorials as part of a package deal. Advertorials are purely the domain of the advertising staff, with no input at all from the editorial side.

    F, there was a movie called The Devil Wears Prada wherein Anne Hathaway was shown to a room containing all the samples given to the magazine she was working for by the different fashion houses. The movie was said to be loosely based on the life of a very powerful magazine editor, I forget who it was as I don’t follow fashion. If these things happen at the most prestigious fashion magazines, the how do they prevent their articles from being tainted? Things do not seem as easy as black and white.

  24. Thanks Gerry for the info. Wouldn’t it be good to have some disclosure still? Or is it just left to the reader to recognize the advertorials as such?

  25. Of course a business owner is free to host parties or events for media, as long as he or she does not say, “Dear Mr. Writer, please come to my restaurant and enjoy free food, but only if you promise to say only good things about my business.” Inviting movers and shakers (and the people who write about movers and shakers) is part and parcel of business promotion. The onus is on the media person to provide appropriate disclosure and to remain as objective as possible.

    I feel that there should also be a distinction made between the kind of media person (whether TV host, newspaper writer, blogger, or whatever)… a writer who’s on the “society” beat cannot (and should not, in my book) be expected to remain objective, because their whole purpose in life is to gush about Mrs. So-and-So’s sophistication while dining on Chef So-and-So’s impeccable food. A person who professes to be a reviewer, on the other hand, should be held to a much higher standard and should be subjected to a much more stringent code of ethics.

  26. My comment has nothing to do with ethics in blogging but my personal view on food bloggers and critics. The reason your blog is my favorite is because you not only do research and report about food but because you can actually cook. Anybody with a computer can like or dislike, rant or rave about certain restaurants and dishes, but I can’t possibly take anyone’s food comments seriously unless they know how to cook. So to all those self-proclaimed food bloggers, we all appreciate your feedback on restaurant services and dishes, but I wish you’d all learn how to cook and give better reviews on the food. And to those who read their blogs, take everything with a grain of salt.

  27. It just makes me wonder why some writers/bloggers would be adverse to being upfront if they were comped a meal, a trip, etc. I think that people who don’t want to disclose such things are hiding something. May be they give favorable reviews (warranted or not) so long as the stuff was for free.

    I for one would love to see a review where the writer admits to being comped something, then proceeds to give a scathing but honest review. Hahaha! Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it will be good.

  28. I am a staff on a tourism-related company and there was one time we invited bloggers for one of our marketing campaign. Around 15 of them. All blogs are known or famous.
    They were all flown to Boracay – all expense paid.

    One of the blogger invited could be BBB. After that encounter, I noticed that these bloggers has one thing in common – they all do this (blogging) for a living.

    “For a living” I mean, they get monetary benefit for what they do. Be it free tickets, gift certificates, discounts, sponsorship, etc. etc.

    It is a normal practice to any company to invite “media” for promotions but this has just made a negative impression on blogging community.

  29. Hmmm. I’d tell my kids:

    “Don’t be too self righteous”;

    ” Have some common sense”.

    I don’t really rely (meaning agree)on movie reviews when I see all the movies I want to see. I see want I want to see. Let me be surprised, you know? So same thing with the bloggers opinions, yes! mostly opinions (it’s their blog), I go on my own choice. I don’t care how much MM say how good pork or lechon is. No way I’d eat that filthy animal, even if the whole Israel started eating Zubuchon, I still wouldn’t but I ain’t preaching against it (People tell me I’m disgusting when I eat “UNI TAMA” (Sea Urchin with raw quail egg yolk, and it’s ok because it’s really yummy, Kosher or not). I read his blog because it’s entertaining, specially when there’s an ass saying his piece, I like the reactions.

    Same thing with dealing with bloggers. Go back to college days, “Critical Thinking” Class (which by the way, is USED to be taught in grade and high school here).
    Who wrote it? Why did they write it? Is it true? What’s the intention? All these questions when you read something.

    Anyways, blogs are more of an entertainment to me and I take it with a grain of salt all the time. Even when the blogger is on a streak of good finds.

    Be entertained!

  30. “Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”

    John Alexander Smith, a professor of moral philosophy. Oxford University. ( 1914 ).

    Mr. Smith was a very wise man, and the above advice is still pertinent in 2011. LOL

  31. The BBB being tweeted and blogged about is not so powerful compare to some politicians or businessman. Ano ba? Ipa mamurder ka ba nyan? If BBB and the PR company are really trying to bully the subject whoever she is bakit nag iinsinuate pa, di na lang deretsahin kung sino.
    I expose nila kung totoo, ano ang threat sa kanila? Restaurant owner…nilikida ng blogger? Ganun?
    Kung totoo yun, sige ilabas nila, sisikat pa yung resto nya, magkakaroon ng exposure. Ma eexpose din si BBB whoever that person is and whatever unethical thing he/she does.

    Hater lang yata yan, but haters gonna hate!

    I don’t beleive it!

    Si Arroyo di pa pinapapatay si Lozada
    Si Mendoza di pa pinpapatay ni Garcia

    Eh mas matindi exposure nila.

    Eh i eexpose mo lang pipitsugin blogger, chismis lang yan. Mag trabaho na lang kayo!

  32. Thank you for paving the way to more honest writing and journalism. The so called gray area is quite difficult to maneuver and I hope writers big and small, famous or not will take the time to go through the links you’ve shared. A HONEST and HONORABLE conscience is a must!

  33. this is why i love this blog!!! not only do we whet our appetites with the food you present, we expand our intellectual capacity as well with discussing and reading about these issues. More power MM for such a forum.



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