Thinkpiece: Disclosure of Payments or Free products given to Influencers / Journalists / Bloggers

Most people working in the media will have heard of the recent update to US FCC Guidelines Governing Endorsements, Testimonials to make sure payments or free products given to Influencers/Journalists/Bloggers are fully disclosed

cash for comment “Cash for Comment?” photo credit: Jose Kevo

I’d like to comment on a specific part of these new guidelines:

“The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed.

Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”

It’s important to note that these new FCC guidelines apply to websites under US jurisdiction.

In a FastCompany article analyising the new FCC guidelines Brian Lam (editorial director of Gizmodo) made an interesting point questioning why bloggers had been singled out when disclosure of conflicts of interest is an issue for all types of media:

“Some colleagues of mine just reminded me of how many freelance pro journalists take junkets. In the end, I’m glad these rules are being introduced, but it’s kind of stupid to attach unethical behavior to a particular publishing medium. Look at how sh*tty TV journalism can be, by and large.”

Richard Cleland, assistant director, division of advertising practices at the FTC agreed with Lam:

“It’s not the medium, it’s the message. We want to establish a self-imposed ethical standard so people are aware of the conflicts of interest”.

To the best of my knowledge the nearest equivalent law in Australia would be the ACCC’s prohibition against misleading & deceptive conduct by business.

This is the relevant excerpt from the ACCC’s description of misleading & deceptive conduct:

“No matter how a business communicates with you – whether it is through packaging, advertising, logos, endorsements or sales pitch – you have the right to receive accurate and truthful messages about the goods and services that you buy.

There is a very broad provision in the Trade Practices Act that prohibits conduct by a corporation that is misleading or deceptive, or would be likely to mislead or deceive you.

It makes no difference whether the business intended to mislead or deceive you – it is how the conduct of the business affected your thoughts and beliefs that matters.”

Personal Viewpoint re: Conflicts or Interest

Jurisdictional issues and whether these laws are realistically enforceable aside, I operate my sites as honestly as possible, the same way I deal with people in real life and hope they deal with me.

When PR companies send me free tickets to review events or technology products on short/long term loans I make sure that this is clearly disclosed towards the top of resulting articles and not hidden in small text at the bottom.

Here are some real world examples:

Samsung Galaxy review: “I recently attended the launch of 5 new Samsung touchscreen mobile smartphones including the new Samsung Galaxy Icon (I7500) Google Android phone and they’ve loaned me a review phone for a few weeks for testing”

Kodak ZX1 review: “I recently went on a 1 week holiday to Charlotte Pass Ski Resort in Australia’s Snowy Mountains and took a media loan Kodak ZX1 HD pocket video camera with me.”

Also when mentioning media loan products in tweets I try and fit disclosures into the 140char limit wherever relevant. For example these examples from last week:

@neerav: @DDsD @fridley @jodiem yes the new firmware on my media loan Galaxy has hugely improved battery life. its the cheapest at $550 but not fancy

@neerav: @qftravelinsider re: that floriade photo, I was using a media loan Canon SX20is ultrazoom camera on super macro mode

Australian Context

I asked some friends to comment about the disclosure of payment or free products given to Influencers/ Journalists/Bloggers:

Laurel Papworth aka @SilkCharm (Australian Blogger & Social Network/Online Community Strategist)

This “journalists have ethics” is boring. Try telling top bloggers making 100k or $2.5m a year that they “aren’t accountable”

*Amused* some people think that bloggers aren’t “accountable”. Anyone with even one reader most definitely is…

Do you think I, as a blogger, can risk poor research and incorrect advice? Wouldn’t that affect my reputation? Makes me accountable?

Julie Posetti aka @julie_posetti (Lecturer in Journalism at University of Canberra/freelance journalist):

I think @silkcharm makes a good pt. I believe the FCC laws should equally apply to pro-js [journalists]. Level playing field 4 transparency = fair

To an ABC-trained reporter where ethics R enforced & there R strict rules about receiving gifts/favours, junket j[ournali]sm is objectionable

US journalists can’t claim prof[essional]/ethical high ground if they’re not subject to the same levels of transparency demanded of bloggers.

But in the interests of freedom of expression, I’d ultimately prefer it if laws were unnecessary & transparency was self-regulated

Leigh Stark aka @leighlo (Presenter of Gadget Grill Radio Show/Podcast and Freelance Journalist)

I have one rule. It’s a biggie. Even if I get free stuff, I don’t let it influence me. I’m not going to lie about my review.

So I’m unsure whether saying “I got such & such for free” is needed. I’ll probably end up giving it to a family member, to be honest

Now payment I’ve never had to deal with from a company. Naturally if there’s a conflict, it should be declared.

David Olsen (Geek and Technology/Gadget Enthusiast)

“I think [it] full disclosure adds credibility”

What do you think about the level of disclosure for Payment or Free products given to Influencers/Journalists/Bloggers in Australia?

Is transparency the new objectivity as David Weinberger suggests?

6 Replies to “Thinkpiece: Disclosure of Payments or Free products given to Influencers / Journalists / Bloggers”

  1. Im far from happy about this, why should us bloggers have to state what gifts we get, its a gift after all, there is no tax o be paid or anything

  2. You rightly point out that there is a whole lot of “in kind” sponsorship or payment that goes on in almost every industry. Dare I mention the medical industry? Ultimately, you can’t hide this away. Someone, somewhere will find out, and if you don’t disclose, then it affects your reputation. It impacts the network of trust that you have established with your readers/friends.

    I’m not against people making money. It’s just best not to hide the difference what you think and what you’ve been paid to think.

  3. Neerav – agree with you about disclosure & also agree that it should be for everyone (including journalists). It is important that people know when it is sponsored use of a product & when it is personal. Potential influence must be transparent.

  4. Neerav, I’d suggest full disclosure is absolutely necessary to maintain credibility. Credibility is the only currency an individual blogger has.

    Personally I think holding bloggers to a higher standard than the mainstream media channels is a good thing. One reason for established media’s eroded credibility is because of the thinly veiled advertorials and barely rewritten press releases masquerading as news.

  5. I think full disclosure is critical for credibility.

    We don’t believe politicians who say they weren’t influenced by “kickbacks”, why should bloggers be any different? Anyone who doesn’t provide up front disclosure – where potentially relevant to the topic being discussed – risks others later assuming the worst about their intentions.

    Someone once said: “we judge ourselves by our intentions…others judge us by our actions.”

  6. Old topic, sorry for the bump; someone Googled “disclosure of products on blogs” and landed on my blog’s disclosure policy. I was curious to see what other results came out and found this article first.

    What I was also interested to find is no other disclosure policies on that front page of Google. I have a disclosure policy and feel it’s necessary to have honest conversations with my readers. It’s not necessary to say things as robotic as “I received this product in exchange for it’s promotion” but I am always honest when I receive a product as a gift; or if a post is sponsored it is marked as such.

    While it’s not a legal requirement in this country I think it’s important to disclose in order to establish integrity. I try hard not to accept sponsorship or gifts that don’t pertain to the interests of my blog in order to maintain a connection with my readers.

    It’s such a little thing but I think some bloggers feel they’re entitled to receive sponsorship or product compensation and don’t feel the necessity to disclose, as Helen suggested in a prior comment. No Helen, you don’t have to. But you should feel crummy that you don’t because you’re being deceptive by omission and that’s cheating your readers who rely on your honesty.

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