New Ethics for New Media? The FTC and Press Junkets

Since the publication earlier this month by the Federal Trade Commission of new guidelines on endorsements and testimonials, the place and nature of ethical guidelines in the new-media world have been a hot topic. The guidelines, frankly, are plain stupid. But they do shine an interesting light on how new media ethos is shifting from objectivity to transparency.

In the new guidance, the FTC specifically calls out bloggers for close attention. According to the FTC, “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.”

Responses to the new guidelines have spanned a wide range of opinion.  ASBPE president Steve Roll had a standard old-media response in a post entitled “First, Kill All the Bloggers.” Roll’s position is that bloggers, as an “industry,” have failed to police themselves and hence deserve to be regulated. For Roll, it appears, the FTC guidelines validate his belief that bloggers are unethical and not real journalists. (Might one venture to suggest that Roll is just a shade behind the times? As NYU’s Jay Rosen said almost FIVE YEARS AGO, “Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over.”)

By contrast, the consensus of commenters seems to be that while well intentioned, the new guidelines will fail miserably in practice (see, for example, these posts by Jeff Jarvis and Michael Masnick). As both Jarvis and Masnick argue, no one likes pay-per-post advertising practices, but trying to control it by regulation creates a minefield for even the most ethical bloggers. As Masnick points out, for example, will the FTC really expect bloggers to disclose the age-old custom of receiving free books to review? And does anyone really think such “payment in-kind” influences the outcome of those reviews? (Full disclosure: I have either paid for or borrowed all the books reviewed so far for B2B Memes. But if any publisher wants to send me free review copies, be my guest! I will admit, however, that I received free books for the reviews I wrote some years ago for the Tennessean.)

Whatever you may think of the new guidelines, they do raise an intriguing question: Have new media subtly altered our perception of what is and isn’t ethical in journalism and publishing? This topic came up on the latest episode of This Week in Tech (TWiT), when host Leo Laporte cited the above-mentioned Jay Rosen. Laporte recalled how, when he was first hired by the now defunct TechTV cable network in the 1990s, he had signed a very strict document outlining “ethical principles in journalism.” But at last week’s Blog World Expo, he said, Rosen told him that now, “anything goes as long as you disclose.”

Laporte, clearly, was not comfortable with that view. As an example, he referred to his strict practice of not going on paid press junkets. “Disclosure,” he said, “does not compensate for the potential conflict of interest.” His panelists, however, were more flexible. “It all depends on what editorial brand you’re creating,” said one.

At this point, panelist and well-known tech journalist John Dvorak stepped in with what was, for me, a fairly mind-blowing comment.

“All this ethical stuff, including that [TechTV] document you’re talking about, pretty much was designed by the New York Times for the sole purpose of giving the New York Times an advantage over smaller papers and smaller venues. If you have an event, for example, that is taking place in Tokyo, where breaking news is going to take place, it would normally be expected in the European press that some companies would fly you out there (Sony, Nokia). And if you read the European reports they’re not giving them any breaks just because they got a free flight.

[But] the New York Times has it that, No, No, you cannot go to the Nokia event on Nokia’s dime. We have to pay for it ourselves on our own dime, and then you can go and be more objective when you report on it. I’m thinking, this is just to keep out the smaller papers that aren’t going to send anybody.”

Granted, Dvorak likes to play the cynical and bombastic curmudgeon, but his point here is eye-opening. The Times’s position on junkets may not be a competitive ploy, but it is a luxury few can afford nowadays. As an old-media editorial director for an old-media publisher, I generally took the New York Times/Leo Laporte position. But in a transformed and fragmented media world, where hyper-narrow niche blogs are replacing broader, better-funded print publications, that approach no longer works. So my new, post-Dvorak position on paid junkets? If you disclose, you can go.

In the new media world, transparency has replaced objectivity as the journalistic ideal. To my mind, at least, this is a good thing. True objectivity can never be achieved. Transparency can.

UPDATE (10/23/09): A transcript of the TWiT episode is now available.