The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently suck its neck out by suggesting bloggers who are paid, or otherwise incentivised to post should declare that interest as it is misleading to consumers not to do so (look here for an analysis).
This brings up a whole raft of questions about the status of bloggers and those who pay or give them products to write posts in the UK. One of the main issues goes to heart of what blogging actually is. Is it journalism or advertising? And if it’s neither it falls between industry regulation in the UK.
Journalists are paid by publishers. Those publishers have an obligation to separate advertising and editorial content. (one that the Daily Express doesn’t always take seriously)
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) challenged the Daily Express, suggesting that features it had published were in fact controlled by the advertiser – not Express Newspapers – and that the paper had not made this clear by labelling the content an advertorial. The ASA also challenged various claims made about the effectiveness of each product.
The Press Complaints ComissionPCC has a voluntary code governing journalistic ethics. It is only loosely adhered to in some quarters ( I’m thinking the Sun and News of the World) and doesn’t specifically mention the subject of journalists being influenced by cash or gifts, but does stress the importance of journalists not abusing their position by printing misleading information.
The truth is that while journalists are given quite a lot – press trips to exotic shores, healthcare products, consumer gadgets, etc – there is only a tacit understanding that they will ever write about what they are given, a sort of gentleman’s agreement.
Journalists aren’t paid by third parties because it is considered that such payments would affect their impartiality. Advertising departments do occasionally put pressure on them to consider writing about certain products or companies, but cash isn’t paid to them directly.
A blogger’s integrity
As we all know bloggers self publish – making money if they can and want to from advertising, affiliate schemes, sponsored posts and selling links.
While the FTC’s guidance leaves a lot of question marks (read here for a good look at some of its essential problems) for the blogging community it seems no one is particularly concerned as it currently lacks the clout to police what it is proposing.
There are effectively no rules that affect blogging in the UK in the same way that the ASA polices advertising or the PCC patrols journalism.
So? you may well ask, does it really matter?
The community regulates
Well yes and no.
It matters to some more than others. If blogging and social media is democratising the media – allowing anyone to publish their own thoughts or news – then we all hope content is trustworthy and transparent, as we rely on it to shape our world view.
In some senses it doesn’t matter how bloggers are paid as long as their blog stays true to its subject matter. If it doesn’t and quite clearly becomes a mouthpiece for marketers then it will lose readers, comments, links and ultimately value.
So it’s not how bloggers are remunerated that matters, but what they say and whether readers trust them that counts. As this blog’s very own Patrick Altoft tweeted:-
If a blogger has credibility they just chose the right things to write about and keep that integrity intact.
Blogs sit on a scale somewhere between advertising and journalism. Each one at a slightly different point on that spectrum attracting a different audience who are well aware of their approach. If you start to go off topic or post on products or issues your readership has no interest in they’ll soon let you know.
So bloggers aren’t just self-regulated, but also checked and balanced by the communities they attract and inhabit – which is perhaps more powerful than any official code.
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