Print Vs. Blogging: How Our Ethics Stack Up

We've discussed how to get the inside scoop as a fashion journalist, how to keep your credibility as a blogger, and how not to be a blogger sell out — but it seems that bloggers are still facing issues solidifying themselves as media outlets with an established ethical compass.

The thing is, while magazines may not admit it, some do plug their sponsors in their articles. However, the general public believes (for the most part) that because there is a large corporation and copious amounts of editors, fact checkers and researchers, they must be a credible source. But sometimes the opposite is true — because these magazines have so many advertisers to answer to, they bend the rules to push a product, especially since print advertisement deals are rapidly going digital.

Hey, even Vogue missteps sometimes

The New York Times code of ethics has been considered the Bible of journalism ethics, and in general, is quite dense (trust me, I studied it in college).

So we asked George Freeman, an expert on First Amendment law and formerly of the assistant general counsel for the Times for 30 years, to weigh in on the blogging ethics debate. “The Times doesn’t accept gifts or, say, free hotels/travel if working on a travel piece. I gather that is not the standard in the magazine industry, but I do have a hard time believing that getting a free oceanview room or a free bit of clothing won’t influence the writer’s report on that hotel or designer. So while I understand the financial difficulties of small bloggers, I question how objective they can be when being gifted by the person they are reviewing. At the very least, they should disclose the freebie.”

He goes on, “Ethics really should be fairly standard across media, print or on-line, but, of course, different people/firms/media have different ethical standards. The more ethical they are and the more actual factual reporting bloggers do, the more their credibility will be enhanced. I think the key is that bloggers need to do on-the-ground reporting; those that do have strong reputations. Those that just opinionate on others people’s work, or worse, just repackage other journalists’ work will not be considered very legitimate. Mixing ads and content is not illegal, but is not very ethical either. That is, anything which gives the appearance that content is being affected by advertisers will be looked as suspect.”

Here are a few of the ethical standards their reporters hold themselves to that could also apply to bloggers, see them for yourself:

Under: A1. Our Duty to Our Audience

Section: Keeping Our Detachment

24. …staff members, especially those assigned to beats, must be aware that personal relationships with news sources can erode into favoritism, in fact or appearance. Editors, who normally have a wide range of relationships, must be especially wary of showing partiality. Where friends and neighbors are also newsmakers, journalists must guard against giving them extra access or a more sympathetic ear. 

25. Though this topic defies firm rules, it is essential that we preserve professional detachment, free of any hint of bias. Staff members may see sources informally over a meal or drinks, but they must keep in mind the difference between legitimate business and personal friendship. A city editor who enjoys a weekly round of golf with a city council member, for example, risks creating an appearance of coziness. 

Section: Paying Our Own Way

30. When we as journalists entertain news sources (including government officials) or travel to cover them, our company pays the expenses. In some business situations and in some cultures, it may be unavoidable to accept a meal or a drink paid for by a news source (for example, at an official's residence or in a company's private dining room). Whenever practical, however, we should avoid those circumstances and suggest dining where we can pay our share (or, better, meeting in a setting that does not include a meal). 

31. Staff members may not accept free or discounted transportation and lodging except where special circumstances give little or no choice. Such special cases include certain military or scientific expeditions and other trips for which alternative arrangements would be impractical…

Section: Dealing With Competitors

33. We compete zealously but deal with competitors openly and honestly. We do not invent obstacles to hamstring their efforts. When we first use facts originally reported by another news organization, we attribute them.

In a nutshell, be careful that your personal relationships don't sway your writing, don't accept gifted items or trips, and don't use content without attribution.

When we think about the typical way a blog works, we might notice that your average bloggers violates some standard ethics. Maybe you post about your friend's jewelry line more often than others? Or perhaps accept a free dinner from an advertiser looking to work with you? Or even take a free flight to a Fashion Weeks far and beyond? The problem with fashion bloggers is that we are our own business… and sometimes business mixes with pleasure.

So, the question arises — should we too build a blogger code of ethics? Or, since there is no one “moderating” our content, could it even be enforced if it did exist? How can we build our credibility as a whole community, not just individually?

[Image credit: Shutterstock]


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13 Responses

  1. Jade

    I certainly agree that anything gifted should be disclosed or that if a blogger has a personal relationship (eg family, friend etc) with someone they’re blogging about that should also be mentioned but I think a “legal” code of ethics would be hard to police (I’m assuming!) online. For example, I have an online clothing store and I mention it on my blog every now and then but I also mention that it’s MY clothing store so people are aware of that relationship.

  2. Nanna

    It really is a fine line and bloggers do have their own world. I think this article raises more questions than it answers them, which is a good and interesting thing.

  3. Ais

    I agree with Jade, disclose relationship status and gifted items. As to the rest, I see blogging as a personal opinion soap box, it’s carried down to the sidewalk, placed, and you step up and start voicing what you want to. Unless you are getting paid (which should be disclosed) for a post, you should be able to write whatever you want to write–unless of course it’s hate speech or something like that, but I’m talking about the non-extremes; tips for summer hair, thoughts on the latest trends, what type of bag is “in”, etc.

  4. Cate

    I think that a clearly stated ethics guideline for bloggers would be a huge plus for our credibility. It would be difficult to enforce, but the fact that it existed, and that bloggers were volunteering to adhere to it would give it, and them a sense of credibility that we haven’t had before.

  5. Ana

    Yes, there should be a code of ethics.
    It should be a set of guidelines, added to as we encounter glitches, and it shouldn’t be enforced by an external force.

  6. Student Flair Blog

    I believe that blogging is a different medium and so apply different rules. We’re now in 2012 and our personal fruition of content has changed. Personally, I prefer an advertisement that has been thought and tailored to the audience I’m part of rather than one I am not interested in at all. This, I believe, is a thought shared by many. Also, what we like about blogs is that they express a personal prospective, so I think that personal influences are inevitable and sometimes welcome. Of course, everything should be disclosed, but if I’m reading a blog which is a blogger’s window on the world, why wouldn’t I want to know what her other creative friends are doing? There should be a balance, ok, but still, we’re not journalists.

  7. Serene

    Interesting that one of the first areas of concern he mentioned was “gifts” or “c/o”. Gifted items would certainly affect a writer’s point of view, and at the very least starts to make them unrelatable. When I see popular bloggers sporting $900 hand bags that were gifted to them, I feel like we’re not even on the same planet. And while I see disclaimers from bloggers stating that, while they may receive gifted items for review, the opinion is their own and not influenced….. I don’t believe I’ve ever read a negative review.

    From the beginning of my blogging, I’ve been troubled by “courtesy of” items. I just dont feel they serve fashion bloggers well, and frankly, it’s cheap advertisement to the brands who toss some clothes at a blogger who has spent HUNDREDS of posts building a readership with her creativity and point of view. The brands benefit from this effort with minimal investment and often, amid post fulls of gifted items, the creativity which drew the readership, begins to wane.

    When it comes to monetization, I’d prefer flat out advertising, collaborations or monetary compensation for representing a brand. In my opinion, it keeps things clean and above question.


  8. Kim West

    Many of us have been thinking all along that with blogging comes the ultimate freedom of doing just anything under the sun. Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense. Yes, you are right, people should really learn some ethics when it comes to blogging.

  9. Marissa Joy

    I think it is important to remember that publishing content on a personal style blog is so very different from publishing content via a supposedly unbiased news source.

    A fashion blog is inherently subjective and biased because it discusses the subjective and biased likes and dislikes of a particular person regarding fashion; while I understand how a code of ethics could be a good thing for blogs, I think it would change the content and concept of a lot of blogs. If a blog claims to be an unbiased news source for fashion, then it most definitely should submit to the code of ethics that all objective journalists submit to.
    However, if someone wants to create a website about their style (including favorite brands), then I don’t think it makes sense for them to pretend to not have a subjective opinion, as that is what their followers want to read about. Readers follow certain blogs because they appreciate the blogger’s unique perspective on fashion.

    However, when a blogger sports a particular item that was gifted to them, I think they should disclose that information (as more of a monetary concern). I don’t think, though, that it goes against blogging ethics if they don’t. If that item doesn’t fit in with their particular brand or personal style, then it’s just not very good content and readers won’t be interested in it anyways.

  10. JanB

    As a blogger – and not so much a fashion orientated one – I would say the same ethics and morals apply to everyone writing.
    Blogging however, as a newer form of advertisement than paper issues will have a broader impact on customers in my opinion.