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Ethical Blogging, Part 2

I promised Tom Coates and Christian Claiborn a response to their comments left on my Ethical Blogging entry yesterday.

Before I do so, I'd like to point out three other articles that I've read (via TrackBack). The first is Matt's fairly long piece, mostly in response to Rebecca Blood's article. The second more closely covers product placement in blogs. Finally, Justin Jones offers a concise summary and a few new points as well.

One of my favorite quotes from the second article is this:

Here's my take on things: all that has happened is that a bunch of New Media marketing types think that they have stumbled across a useful 21st century way to sell things to people. There is no great, noble aim involved, and I think it's naïve to think otherwise. The only talent and ability these bloggers have been recognised for is "people read them - if they read them, they can read about our products too".

Matt's article contains many an enjoyable quote, but this may best describe his position:

If you'd instead prefer the comfort of me telling you I adhere to a certain set of standards, and you'd then just take me at my word since "that Gemmell guy prominently says he sticks to Blog Ethics 1.2, so hell, it must be true", then I have a bridge you might be interested in.

But I've thought about this quite a bit in the past few days, so I'll now respond to the comments of Christian and Tom. Speaketh Tom to start his comment:

Er. That's great. Good on you.

Frankly, I took that to be quite patronizing. I may be misunderstanding something, as Tom is British I believe, but Matt (Scottish) confirmed for me that "good on you" and "good for you" are nearly equivalent, the prior being used more in Australia (Australian soap operas are big in the U.K. these days, I guess). At any rate, it sounded rather patronizing, and hardly a constructive way in which to open a dialog. Regardless, I will give Tom the benefit of the doubt here in presuming me an equal, capable of thought at a level similar to his own.

So now - if someone's told you you've made a mistake, what do you do? Would I be able to expect you to post a correction somewhere or would you just not mention it? Or would you edit the original entry. Knowing that affects how I read your site - and how much faith I might place in what you say.

I've enabled internal TrackBacks on this site so that earlier posts can get linked to later ones, creating my own sort of memex, in addition to the links and TrackBacks that come from or go to external sites I don't control. If I made a typo, I'd correct it in place without warning or follow-up. If I made a massive factual error, I'd post a new entry and the wrongful entry would be linked to the correction or the correction would in some way be noted. If someone else corrects me, that too would get linked to.

But as Justin points out in his blog entry:

Rebecca Blood delivered six guidelines in this vein, including perhaps the least intuitive rule, to never delete or amend a published entry, but only to add a correction. Newspapers historically publish corrections in a later issue; the constraints of their medium do not allow them to change the original document in an Orwellian manner. A weblogger or online publisher, however, can completely obliterate or rewrite a published piece, perhaps one that is linked to by someone specifically pointing out one of it's errors or less intentional nuances.

Regardless of how I manage my site and its contents with respect to errors and corrections, Tom seems to be missing the point of my earlier entry - that there's a big difference between saying I will maintain my integrity in some quasi-official "This Blog's Standard of Ethics" page and actually doing it. What would prevent me from saying "I Hereby Swear that I Will Publicly Correct Any Misinformation" ("Rule" 3 in Rebecca Blood's article) and then failing to comply? It's an extremely logical paradox which I'll explain with a brief analogy later. It involves aliens, so stay tuned!

Another one - have you stated anywhere that you do or don't take advertising? I believe you wouldn't intentionally mislead me, but I don't know what you think actually would constitute as misleading - you could participate in the Project Blogger thing and not believe it to be an issue. But someone out there might think that constituted some kind of bias. You may not believe it's worth talking about, but you have to accept that they might not feel the same way...

Do you see any advertising? What would prevent me from saying "I Don't Take Advertising" and then recomm the hell out of, oh, I don't know, Dr. Pepper or some weird new Raging Cow drink (these soft drinks are not chosen without reason). After all, it's not advertising - it's just "cool, I got free stuff, I think I'll write about it." Absolutely nothing would stop me from failing to uphold the standard of ethics I've declared for myself. Nothing except… wait for it… my ethics!

Allow me to illustrate these last two points with a simple story. Imagine two aliens (toldja!). One always lies, while the other never lies. After you say "Hi" to them you ask them "Do you always tell the truth?"

Both say yes.

Get it?

Do I take advertising. Nope. If I did, would I feel compelled to mention it? You bet your ass I would. But by saying "you bet your ass I would" doesn't mysteriously compel me to do so: only my standard of ethics, my internal moral compass, would compel me to actually disclose that information. Any reader with the IQ of a celery stick (or higher) understands this. Politicians write pledges all the time. They create lists all the time. They lie seemingly all the time. It's quite obvious in this day and age that being cynical is often a good thing. Matt said "never believe anything you see on TV" and that's true here too. What does a list of ethics prove? Nothing. Walk the walk.

Moving on, Christian chips in with:

Ethics are, by definition, situational

My friend (how's that for disclosure?) Aaron Linville has already pointed out in the comments that they are not:

Ethics, by defintion, aren't situational. They are guidelines, algorithms if you will; the situation may change and provide a different environment (input/variable into the algorithm) thus producing a different output/result; but ethics themselves are not situational.

Christian continues:

…that you are an "ethical person" in one sphere is no guarantee that you will act according to the ethics of another. Weblogs are (arguably) a new medium and defining your ethics helps readers learn what they can expect from you. It isn't a matter of integrity, it's a matter of communicating the expectations that your readers can have.

While it may be no guarantee, Christian, it's certainly a better guarantee than what could amount to an empty promise: a list of "the ethics I adhere to." Quite simply, a list is no guarantee either!

Christian continues with a salient point:

You were talking earlier about the Griffin PowerMate you bought. Let's say that Griffin had given you a couple of dollars to mention the device in your blog. Would that change what you wrote? Maybe not, but that would help your readers figure out your relationship to the product, which almost certainly colors the text.

Yes, it might change my reader's opinions. I'd begin such a post by saying "Griffin gave me a coupla bucks to talk about my PowerMate, so here goes…" That's called disclosure, and seems to be a big deal to these "ethical bloggers." Unfortunately, disclosure is a slippery slope. Do I like Coca Cola because I grew up in the same state as Christina Aguilera (who did a Coke ad around the same time as Britney's Pepsi pushing)? Do I like Coke because I think that red is a nicer color than blue? Because I own stock in Coca Cola (I own only some AAPL stock at this time)? Because it's cheaper where I shop? Because I live closer to a larger Coke bottling plant (Altanta, GA) than to a Pepsi one? Or do I like it because I think it tastes better? Which of the 1,000+ possibilities must I fully disclose every time I mention Coca Cola on my site?

Imagine how long posts would be if my "This Blog's Official Standard of Ethics™" declared that I'd fully disclose any and all supporting or related information? I'd never finish another entry. Instead, I choose to uphold my own internal standard of ethics - a quite lofty one - and believe that the efforts will show through.

Walking has always had a bigger effect than talking.

If the march of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the people drafting their "lists of ethics" are already looking for their car keys. they're trying to take the easy way out, the lazy way, towards credibility and integrity. I give nobody "instant credibility" for simply posting a list of ethics, and Matt goes one step further:

If I come to your site and read your blog, I'm going to make the choice for myself. I'm going to check up on you, and I'm going to form an independent opinion on your impartiality, ethics or otherwise. If you tell me up-front that, hey, you're a really honest, ethical person who follows principles x and y, then you've probably just lost a reader.

Generally, I've found that those who want to explicitly tell me they're honest either have emotional problems, or are the most morally-dubious individuals you could ever find. Thanks, but I'll make my own choice - and so should you.

Marcus of seems to agree with him:

…if you read a weblog enough you get a pretty good idea of how "ethical" somebody is.

Walk the walk.

2 Responses to "Ethical Blogging, Part 2"

  1. Useful legalese versus wannabe legalese

    In Ethical Blogging, Part 2, a followup to Ethical Blogging, Eric, of NSLog, makes some very interesting points that, in summary, actions speak louder than words.

    This was in contrast to suggestions that there be a statement of ethics or some such...

  2. More on ethics

    A follow-up to Tom Coates' comment on my earlier post about blogging ethics.

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