Bloggers' rights, part 2 of 2: Clampdown on blogs--are you at risk?
ONLINE COLUMN: Web Savvy
Published: September 29, 2009
It was only a matter of time before watchdog organizations and the government took an interest in blogs. And if you're doing paid reviews for products or services, you should adopt a low-risk position. Disclose what you're doing. The Federal Trade Commission is expanding the agency's interest in blogs and other advertising media on the Web with a sharp eye on endorsements and testimonials. The National Advertising Review Council (NARC) is doing the same. But the issues go beyond the mommy blogger who praises a toy brand after she received a free sample. Kay Day
Even well-branded media have become tangled in the kerfuffle. Tech Crunch criticized one top newspaper because one of the paper's writers covers tech companies in addition to authoring books on some of those same companies. The writer doesn't get paid by the companies, but most would agree it's hard to be objective about products if you've taken the time to write books about them.
Web retailers have also been slack in the disclosure department. PC Magazine detailed the story of a dietary supplement company with a Web site offering reviews of its products. But the reviews were paid submissions by writers and the company owned the Web site, products and the review content. A casual reader would have no idea about the conflict of interest. The NARC took the group to task via a self-regulation program and the company placed disclosures on the site.
Not long ago, in response to a request from a reader, I took a look at a health site devoted to discussions about a particular type of surgery for weight loss. Every testimonial praised a surgical center in Florida. I saw no posts about the significant risks with some of the surgical procedures, one of which is fairly new and irreversible. I saw many posts raving about the surgeon. The IP address belonged to an outfit in Nevada. I saw enough to tell the reader if it smells fishy, it usually is.
Political advocacy groups are famous for recruiting people to post comments on message boards.
If you blog, even if you don't write paid reviews, regulations will affect you. So it's important to protect yourself from a liability standpoint. For starters, if you have third party advertising on your Web site, place a notice telling your visitors they leave your site for another if they click on the ad. Make the reader aware the destination may have a different standard for recording private information.
If you are writing paid reviews, disclose your arrangement to the reader. Otherwise you are in violation of the FTC's guides on Endorsements and Testimonials.
Bear in mind if you praise a product that is later recalled or deemed a safety risk, you should update your original content.
|Of course you can be enthusiastic about a product and write about your experiences. I've done this on occasion—not long ago I ran an article from a contributor about a particular brand of loose leaf tea. I tagged the article with a disclaimer: "The opinions are solely those of the author. No monetary or other benefits are derived from mention of specific products." I include similar language in my notice about third party advertising on my site.|
Journalists who've worked in traditional media learn to exercise caution even on minor matters such as a free lunch or a press junket. I can't tell you how many times I've been offered money to promote a product or to go to a resort that I might later praise in a column. I get hundreds of emails from publicists for everything from cosmetics to cookbooks. I usually hit 'delete.' But I have a standing rule that I cannot accept so much as a cup of coffee from someone I may write about. Many bloggers have no formal training in journalism, and that lack of experience could conceivably exact a devastating price if a misstep occurs.
Rather than trying to track every regulation, approach blogging and providing website content with the ideal that spurs most of us to write anyway. Tell the truth every time and put your words in the proper context. That should keep you in good graces with federal agencies and private watchdogs.
FTC testifies about efforts to combat fraudulent and deceptive advertising
Web ad group pushes for ethical blogging
Blogger's rights, part 1 of 2: Consequences of anonymous blogging are unpredictable at present [Web Savvy]
Liability is an issue even for the best of writers [Web Savvy]
--Published Sept. 29, 2009
Do you have a question or comment about Web Savvy? Send me an email at email@example.com.
Join us next time as we tackle considering your sources. Do you verify information before you publish it? Do you research credentials of experts you interview? Sometimes it's smart to check, verify and recheck.
|Kay B. Day|
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International, The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.