Three Simple Rules About Blogging Ethics and Money

Yesterday’s clarification by Judge Marco A. Hernandez about treating bloggers as journalists points out the need for bloggers to follow basic ethical principles, especially as it relates to accepting money or requiring payment for our services.

Oregon blogger Crystal Cox had been sued for defamation — and lost — after writing blog posts that were critical of Obsidian Financial Group and its co-founder, Kevin Padrick. Cox had claimed she was a journalist and used Oregon’s Media Shield Law as her defense. But Hernandez decided she wasn’t a journalist at all.Roll of money

The reason she lost, the reason she was deemed to be not “media,” was that she basically tried to get Obsidian to pay her to repair the damage she was causing. As Hernandez wrote:

“[T]he uncontroverted evidence at trial was that after receiving a demand to stop posting what plaintiffs believed to be false and defamatory materials on several websites, including allegations that Padrick had committed tax fraud, defendant offered ‘PR,’ ‘search engine management,’ and online reputation repair services to Obsidian Finance, for a price of $2,500 per month.”

(Source: Courthouse News)

Not only was Cox’s action not in standing with what a journalist would/should/could never do, we bloggers have our own set of ethics that we must never violate.

There are three ethical principles bloggers cannot and should not violate:

1. You cannot ask for money to write about a product.

You can ask for money to advertise a product on your blog, but you cannot ask to be paid for a review. If you were a radio station, and you demanded payment to play a particular song, that would be payola, and it’s illegal.

Sending a PR flak your rate sheet for reviewing a product is in poor taste and unethical. That would also make your review an advertisement, not an actual review.

Now, you may keep the product, if they offer, and you may also accept the goods or service necessary to write a review (i.e. a stay at a hotel, a meal at a restaurant, theater or movie tickets, etc.), but you have to disclose the receipt of the product/goods/service, according to FTC 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. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

2. You cannot accept money or goods in exchange for a POSITIVE review.

The great thing about bloggers is that we are free to give our unbiased, unvarnished thoughts on a product. If it sucks, we get to say it sucks, even if the company itself sent us the product.

It’s one thing to be asked to write a review. It’s a completely other thing to be asked to write a positive review.

If a company offers you money or lets you keep a very expensive product in exchange for your glowing review of it, that’s a bribe. The company should let you say what you want about the product; if they don’t, they’ve got some unreasonable and unethical expectations, and you should turn the offer down completely.

Yes, we want to say the product was good, because they were so nice to us. And they’re our new friends, and they said they liked our blog. We want them to be happy and continue to be our friends, right? That’s an understandable feeling, but you have to resist the urge.

If the product wasn’t good, you have to/get to say so. If it was great, you have to/get to say so.

Now, you have the right to only write about products or services you’ll like. And it’s not required that you hate something or pan something. When I was a music reviewer for, I never panned anyone in 150 album reviews. I never hated anyone’s work, and never said anyone should pour their heart and soul into their life’s work of being a bartender. However, there were a few albums that I listened to that I never wrote about, because I didn’t want to pan it or say something was awful. Our whole editorial attitude was our moms’ old trope, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

We were able to make that choice, because the owners decided that was their right. As a blogger, you are free to define your blog’s attitude too. Want to be a hater? Be a hater. Want to only publish positive reviews? Publish them. And just ignore the items that don’t fit with your overall attitude.

You have the choice to only write blog posts about great products, but you don’t have an obligation to say only positive things. You also have the choice to only write blog posts about how things suck, but you don’t have an obligation to seek out the worst in anything and everything you see. (Besides, that gets tiresome and people won’t want to hang around you.)

3. You cannot ask for money to undo something you did.

If you wrote negative content and it’s ranking high on a search engine results page (SERP), you can’t ask to be paid to remove it or hide it with positive content. That’s extortion. You expect this kind of behavior from men in shiny suits running protection rackets.

I can’t say much more about this, it’s pretty straightforward. This is not only unethical, it’s pretty stupid. It’s akin to doctors running around, stabbing people, in order to generate more need for their ER services.

Bloggers need to adopt the same ethical standards as professional journalists. We’re still fighting for recognition as real journalists and real media, and we need to live up to the same standards in anticipation of the day that there’s no recognizable difference between the two professions. One of the only ways we are going to be taken seriously is if we follow the same level of ethics that they do.

Photo credit: Images_of_Money (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


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