Super-blogger Chris Brogan has been embroiled in a debate over paid blogging that raises important issues about not just blogger credibility but the changing mechanics of trust in a democratized media world.
A recap: Brogan was one of a handful of bloggers targeted by Kmart in an unusual holiday promotion. The bloggers were each sent a $500 gift card to spend at Kmart with the request that they write about their experiences. They were also asked to invite their readers to enter a contest to win a comparable giveaway.
Brogan did as asked. He was favorably surprised by the changes he found. However, he also identifed some shortcomings, such as messy shelves and limited selection, that he commented upon. He disclosed prominently that this was a paid promotion.
Disclosure apparently wasn’t enough for some critics, who charged Brogan with selling his credibility for a gift card. A vigorous discussion on Twitter debated the ethics of his decision to accept the incentive and of Kmart and partner Izea to stage it. Brogan posted a detailed and thoughtful defense over the weekend, and prominent bloggers like Jeremiah Owyang have acknowledged that this is hardly a black-and-white case.
They’re right about that. This case is about nothing less than the challenge of determining credibility in the media world that is being ripped apart at the seams. For many years, we’ve had the luxury of taking for granted that media organizations could fund consumer advocacy reporters to act in our interests. With the ongoing crisis in print media now spreading into the broadcast world, it’s clear that this kind of reporting will begin to fade. It will be up to the emerging class of new influencers to figure out the rules.
In mainstream media, the standards were clear, at least in the US. Organizations like the American Society of Magazine Editors maintain suggested ethical guidelines that are broadly observed. However, there are no governing standards organizations or regulations, and professional journalists have to make their own choices about what is right. These decisions often enter a gray zone.
During my days in mainstream media, offers constantly came in from vendors and economic development organizations that exceeded in value our $25 or $50 limit on gifts. It was rarely a simple decision whether to accept these offers. For example, I once returned a lavish food basket sent to me as a congratulatory gift by a leading software company. My benefactors were so offended by my action that they never treated me the same way again. It would have been better for everyone if I had simply accepted the gift and distributed it around the office. That’s a case where doing the ethical thing didn’t really help anyone.
Of even bigger concern were the trips. Government economic development agencies frequently dangled all-expense-paid tours of their countries as an incentive to generate coverage. I only went on one of these excursions — back in 1984 — and it was clear that I was no less virtuous than my competitors, who also came out in force (in reality, the trip was rather grueling and not much fun).
To compound this complexity, different cultures have different rules. For example, European media organizations had few ethical problems with these junkets. In fact, vendor marketers have told me in the past that the only way to convince European journalists to cover their events was to pay all expenses. I don’t know if that’s still the case.
Making it Up
There are no broadly accepted standards in the blogosphere, so the community is making them up as they go along. For the most part, it’s doing a fantastic job. In fact, the debate over the Brogan incident testifies to the high ethical standards that bloggers are embracing. Mainstream media could learn from this.
It’s important that this debate be heard, because the collapse of our media institutions will increasingly leave influence in the hands of individuals whose biases and motivations are unknown. I know Chris Brogan personally, and his integrity is beyond question. In fact, I’d argue that someone in his position can’t afford to be anything but genuine. He has one of the largest followings of any blogger on earth, and it would be foolhardy for him to violate the trust they place in him for a few hundred dollars’ worth of graft.
But for less prominent bloggers, the distinctions aren’t so clear. With media institutions crumbling, the onus is shifting to the consumer to exercise healthy suspicion about their information sources. They must increasingly put their trust in people, not institutions, and this makes things more complex.
In my view, the two most important criteria for judging credibility are track record and disclosure. A respected blogger is no less a brand than a respected media institution. In both cases, I give the benefit of the doubt to someone who has demonstrated over time that her word can be trusted.
Disclosure is the baseline for credibility. Anyone who attempts to influence opinion without disclosing potential conflicts of interest is doing a disservice to himself and his community. Had Brogan not disclosed prominently his financial relationship with Kmart, it would have cost him some of my trust. The fact that he did so, combined with his track record, gives me complete faith in the integrity of his opinions.
Businesses will increasingly use creative incentives in the future to gain the visibility they are losing with the decline of mainstream media. We’re out of our comfort zone and we will have to invent new standards of accountability. Perhaps an organization will come up with a rating system of some kind, but I think it’s more likely that we will figure these things out communally. Word-of-mouth has a remarkable power to identify credible sources.
Chris Brogan deserves our thanks for taking the heat and for responding so constructively. His critics deserve our thanks for raising the issue in the first place.