I think a lot about trust. And maybe more importantly, I think about how mistrust happens. Specifically when it comes to writers, columnists, bloggers, and journalists.
Often, when people talk about disclosure, they are usually talking about money. And if you’re a blogger or writer and money is changing hands, I think you should always be on the side of clear, full disclosure. And just for the record, I’ve been called out about disclosure. More on that in a second, though. First, let’s talk about money.
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Money is powerful. I think about the work I do with ERE and how I take our work there (and especially the parts I’m intimately involved with) very personally. But I should, because ERE doing well means I do well and there’s a trigger there in my brain. That’s why I disclose when I talk about our events or publications, usually right in line with the text so you can’t miss it.
I also think about the relationships I developed with the folks at Crimcheck, Halogen Software, Rypple or Vault.com (who paid me for the first time, not as an advertiser, but as a writer). Or when I worked on MeritBuilder or for some of the other companies I’ve been lucky enough to be at, it makes sense that I became vested.
That’s not easy an easy reality when you’re solo and trying to put your best pieces out there without conflict of interest. We have a stellar sales team at ERE and they take care of all of the deal making. It is so much easier when there is that separation. When it is just you, it is a struggle. And I’ve seen a lot of bloggers and writers go down that path and take some wrong turns.
Even though it is difficult to know when or where to disclose, I think there is a clear line: when money (or something of value) changes hands, that’s when you look for opportunities to disclose. And the part about looking for opportunities to disclose is the distinction there, and I think it is the right and appropriate choice. Do it often, with clarity and bake it in with a one-time visitor in mind (if someone comes in off a Google search knowing nothing about you or your publication and reads a piece with a conflict of interest, do they know money changed hands?).
Beyond Money: Honesty
So if you disclose money relationships, shouldn’t that be enough? Well consider what I did above: I linked to an article critical of my ability to disclose. Now obviously, I wasn’t paid by Workforce to include that link. While I didn’t think it was very fair at the time, I do think it is fair to point out that some may have questioned my approach in the past. You should have the opportunity to see that.
Similarly, I may disclose the fact that ERE is my employer, but if I blow smoke up your ass about the company, spin the truth or you get the feeling like I’m not giving you the full story, I become less credible. At least as far as writing is concerned, being honest about both successes and struggles of what we’re doing means people take me mostly at my word, even with the knowledge that I’m an employee.
That’s why disclosing about money is simply not enough. The best way to gain and maintain trust is by abandoning (as best as possible) the built-in bias that the relationship creates and speak the plain truth. And you have to do both, consistently, over a period of time to gain trust.
The Changing Rules Of New Media? Not So Fast
Two and a half years ago, I said at a conference that bloggers were not, in and of themselves, journalists. That’s still true today. I struggle with the term myself but I don’t lose sleep over it, either.
The principles of the old ways, of that idealistic view of journalism as the respected fourth estate, is still within reach, even in this digital, anon-blogging, rumor-monging, money-changing-hands-under-the-table environment that the new media works in these days.
What’s easy to forget is that there was a time when the most prominent people evaluating technology didn’t just pick a side and arrogantly and mindlessly defend it until the bitter end. Or that trading money for half-hearted disclosures and favorable coverage was harder to come by. Or that concepts like black hat SEO, astroturfing and throwing anonymous commenters at a situation could influence the discovery and perception of information.
We’re not talking about a zine or underground newspaper with significant costs and logistical hurdles to get it beyond a few dozen miles of its origin. We’re talking about the same web that you used to get to this very low cost blog today can get you to other sources with millions of dollars staked into their sites.
The biggest misconception is that old media rules are outdated and unneeded. In reality, the key thing that happened is that not playing by those rules was finally a choice for nearly anyone who wished to publish something with almost unlimited (and low-cost) distribution.
That’s a great thing for information flow. But if you want to be trusted wholesale as a writer, blogger, or whatever you want to call yourself, you’ll quickly learn that these journalist quacks may have been on to something with their silly rules. They knew it was about trust. Even if you had to get ink on your fingers to read about it.