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Blogger Ethics and Disclosure

by Tim Elliott on August 28, 2008

The current controversy over a group of wine bloggers accepting a wine sample under the condition to write something — good or bad — about that wine has me reflecting over my code of ethics. Since I have commercial interests in the wine trade, I think it is very important to make full disclosures in order to avoid any conflicts of interest. It’s a simple code really… I accept samples but don’t agree to post a review, disclose when samples are provided in the post or podcast and I don’t review wines from producers I work with. It’s been posted on my “about” page for two years now since Alder brought the issue up and posted his own disclosure.

So I was deeply distressed to see two posts this week suggesting I was not ethical in my review of Rodney Strong’s “Rockaway” Cabernet as part of a blogging experiment. The first post was by Wine Enthusiast critic Steve Heimoff who thought that we were “manipulated” by the folks at Rodney Strong. This touched off more comments with Mr. Heimoff directly questioning our ethics as wine bloggers. That might be a valid assessment if Mr. Heimoff had done his homework — no, journalistic duty — and investigated this story further with those of us involved before posting his thoughts on the matter.

The second post that disturbed me was one from Tom Wark who took Mr. Heimoff’s logic one step further concluding, “I do think, however, that by agreeing to work on behalf of their subject they risk compromising the inherent independence that wine bloggers possess.”

Where did Mr. Wark get his facts for this post? Not from those of us who took part in the Rockaway experiment. Just like Steve Heimoff didn’t. And they are professionals not enthusiasts like many of us involved.

Do you see something wrong here? I do.

Before I get into the ethical implications of a professional journalist and seasoned wine PR professional not doing any investigation before making some serious accusations, let me backup and fully disclose the chain of events that got us here.

On July 30th, Jeff Lefevere of Good Grape contacted six wine bloggers with an invitation to participate in what he called a “blogging experiment”. The bloggers were Dr. Debs from Good Wine Under $20, Tyler from Dr. Vino, Megan from Wannabe Wino, Renee from Feed Me/Drink Me, Kori from the Wine Peeps and myself. Only Tyler declined and Joe from 1WineDude was added. To my knowledge, “several other leading wine bloggers” were not contacted or declined to participate. Robert Larson from Rodney Strong Vineyards was copied on this and all future emails from Jeff about the experiement but did not have any role in the dialogue.

Jeff’s request was pretty specific with the following portion salient to the current controversy:

“Here’s the give to get and this is my suggested execution path, not Rockaways:

  • In agreement for receipt of the sample you agree to write a blog post on or around the week of August 18th.  You do not have to write anything favorable, but you do have to write a post with a word count between 300-500 words
  • You can choose to write a review on the wine or if you choose not to review it you can write around any number of story angles about the wine/winery/concept, etc.
  • I would encourage you, as I will do, to be fully transparent about the sampling.  In fact, I plan doing a lead up with a post or two about my interactions with Robert and the fact that wineries are starting to get wine blogging, take wine bloggers seriously and to engage us with a level of rapport usually reserved for only established media.”

There was no request for review, only a post. And this post could be anything of our choosing including negative reviews or commentary. In short, we had complete editorial freedom. Since my own ethics state that I do not promise a review, I thought that this request was within my personal code as long as I disclosed I received this wine as a trade sample. Yes, I thought is was somewhat of an unusual request but Jeff’s concept was several posts about the same wine happening the same week, so I agreed.

On August 11th, Jeff send out another email to the entire group with Arthur Black added as a guest blogger at Good Grape. Here he made to following request:

” I have committed to Robert [Larson of Rodney Strong Vineyards] that we would post in between next Monday, August 18th and Thursday the 21st.  300 + words is the requested minimum.  The notion here is to do something thoughtful and meaningful.  There is no editorial restriction, but I’d like the piece in whatever form you decide to take it to be something you are proud to stand behind.”

Attached to this email was a variation of the label graphics and a fact sheet. There was no press release or any other coaching. I tasted the wine over three evenings from August 11 without food and not blind, as I taste most wine samples. My notes were recorded into Evernote for future posting here. Over the next few days I did research online made notes and eventually turned this into an outline. At this point I took a vacation from blogging and enjoyed Disneyland with my family for 3 days.

When I returned, I flew to San Francisco and then went on to Sonoma where I intended to finish and post my review along with an analysis from a marketing standpoint for my company blog. Where I was staying lost their internet connection and later their power so I was not able to post until Saturday, August 23rd, 2 days after the requested deadline.

And that’s where this story should have ended but Mr. Heimoff, who makes his living tasting wine for Wine Enthusiast, posted his pointed critique on his blog. I think the context is important for everyone to understand here because just a week before the meme in the wine blogosphere was over the Wine Spectator‘s giving an award to a fake restaurant exposed by a blogger (well, at least they used a blog to do their sting operation). A firestorm of hatred for all bloggers was unleashed in the Wine Spectator’s apparently unmoderated forums. Even senior editor James Molesworth got into the act calling bloggers, “…lazy journalists.” It was not their finest hour which I will dissect in another post.

I believe both of these events are directly related.

The traditional wine press has not acknowledged wine blogs exist even as they begin to employ the medium. Their business model is challenged by social media and they are starting to feel the pain. It will get a lot worse in coming months and years as the wine buyer increasingly looks for wine recommendations online and are used to finding this information on search engines. And most wine buyers will not find their reviews, published late behind subscription barriers, but they will find reviews on wine blogs. For free. Without advertising from wine brands mixed with the editorial. And fully open for their comments.

I think the traditional wine press is getting concerned about us and are trying to use this blogging experiment to discredit all wine bloggers. But this will not work and the reason why is simple: Disclosure.

Everyone who has taken part in the Rockaway experiment has been totally transparent about the conditions and have made the proper disclosures. But where are the disclosures from Steve Heimoff and Tom Wark? They don’t exist on either of their blogs. How wine ratings are done is not even on Mr. Heimoff’s employers’ website which I would find disturbing if I read that publication.

So the bottom line for me on this whole thing is that Heimoff and Wark did not check their facts. They did not speak with any of the bloggers involved or Rodney Strong Vineyards (yes, I checked). I think they need to reassess their own blogging ethics, post a retraction of erroneous facts and offer an apology.

But that’s just me and my ethics talking. What do you think?

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