Who"s davidlian?

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davidlian is an ultra-geeky chinese dude that works for a technology PR agency. He loves fiddling with techno-toys, plays Warhammer 40K, and shoots pictures wherever he goes. Here, he rants about PR, Technology and anything else. Don't expect balance and un-biased, he ain't no journalist. Anything said on this blog are solely davidlian's personal views. Don't confuse them with company mantra, client's views or views of any organisation he may be part of.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

All my posts are belong to me

There was a mini debate last week discussing blogging ethics following coverage in the Star over the PRCA Malaysia forum last week. Here's my personal viewpoint on the issues raised that have attracted more than a little discussion.

But before I proceed, I'd like to just remind everyone it's just this - a debate. There's no definitive guide to blogger ethics yet published, though I tribute Ed Bott's post on the topic as instrumental to helping me form my own views and approach - especially when relating public relations to bloggers.

All my posts

Advertorial / Editorial

I was having a discussion with a blogger just last weekened about the issue of placing advertorials in blogs. Like any convention that's inherited from the institutionalised media, the concept of 'advertorial' has a rich history and many, many decades of refinement to reach the state it is today. Still, most print publications will still have varying interpretations as to what constitutes an 'advertorial'.

To save myself space (and not turn this into a lengthy article), I'm going to suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on this if you want to get the long explanation. I'm just going to borrow a couple of excerpts:

An advertorial is an advertisement written in the form of an objective opinion editorial, and presented in a printed publication — usually designed to look like a legitimate and independent news story.

Most publications will not accept advertisements that look exactly like stories from the newspaper or magazine they are appearing in. The differences may be subtle, and disclaimers—such as the word "advertisement"—may or may not appear. Sometimes euphemisms describing the advertorial as a "special promotional feature" or the like is used.

Many newspapers and magazines will assign staff writers or freelancers to write advertorials, usually without a byline credit. A major difference between regular editorial and advertorial is that clients usually have content approval of advertorials, a luxury usually not provided with regular editorial.
I'm going to summarise it this way: advertorials look exactly like editorial pieces except for one point: control over the editorial content is given over to the advertiser in exchange for payment. The advertiser gets to dictate what is said and the words used, and in return, the publication gets fair payment. With this in mind, most (but importantly, not all) publications insert the label 'advertorial', 'special feature' or 'promotion' with paid advertorials being published.

What about bloggers?

My personal conviction is that if I'm going to hand over editorial control of a certain article to an advertiser, I will mark that article as an advertorial. If I was pitched a review and given free rein to write whatever I want, then, even though I'm writing about a product, it won't be labeled advertorial. It really comes down to who has the control over how the article is written.

The case for credibility

Of course, the reason why many publications would place the label 'Advertorial' on an advertorial is to safeguard their credibility.

Back in journalism school, I was taught that the single most important value a journalist needs to adhere to is independence. My lecturer used to say: people read newspapers to get the truth - the unbiased truth.

Naturally, if newspapers or any printed publication start passing off paid-for advertorials as independently generated editorial content, the expected scenario is for that newspaper to lose credibility and readers. Why? Because those readers purchased the newspaper or magazine expecting to read the journalists unbiased report or opinion.

In the same scheme, tabloids don't get the same scrutiny broadsheets do simply because their expectations of independent reporting, source-confirmations etc. are set much lower than the daily broadsheets.

So how does this translate into the blogosphere (or the web 2.0 at large)?

Your own voice, your own space

I believe that credibility is still an important currency in the online world. But, in a peer-to-peer communication world where any consumer can communicate, credibility is going to mean a thousand-and-one things to a thousand-and-one different people.

Take a walk down the world-wide-web. We have on one hand, the institutionalised media - The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal - and they are the bastions of credibility. People expect to be given an unbiased view when they surf over to www.wsj.com.

On another hand, you have topic / product / brand-specific blogs where you can surely expect reporting to mirror to the disposition of the writers. I'll just reference two here: www.thenokiablog.com and http://www.applefanboyz.com/.

Then on your third hand (what? no third hand?), you have personal blogs or social blogs where the bloggers freely express their own views and opinions, unfettered. I think I'll just reference mine. (ed: on second thought, I think I'll just stick Ee May's blog here too.

The point is: all these blogs have a good amount of readers (except mine) but not all of them follow the same conventions of 'credibility' outlined above. Does this mean credibility is no longer consequential?

The short answer is no, it still is. The long answer is that it really depends who you are and what you're blogging about. I know bloggers who couldn't care less whether people think they are credible and I know some who'd pull an article if credibility was suspect.

What's important to you as a blogger becomes measured and balanced against what's important to your readers. If disclosure is a personal conviction for you, like me, then great. But if you have a different set of views and disclosure is really secondary, then that's great too. In the end, readers will read what they want from sources they trust.

Bloggers, on the other hand, will have the freedom to write what they want, disclose as they see fit, and basically own their own posts. Of course, the law of the land applies, and what's illegal offline is surely illegal online. But what I'm saying here is that each blogger as an individual will continue defining his / her own code-of-conduct. Some of these may be close to how journalists would act. Some of these may not.

But in the end: the key message is, all my posts are belong to me.


cheayee said...

I think that bloggers should inform others if it is a "paid post". To keep their credibility.

However, as for readers wanting to read the truth.... that is a whole political issue altogether....

Tim said...

But it's precisely that your posts are(sic) not "belong to you" when you put up an advertorial. It partly belongs to the advertiser, and how can you forget the readers who are the target audience and the reason you got the advertorial in the first place.

The refusal of some people to recognize how their readers have the right to ask that posts that are advertorials be marked so bemuses me. The most common excuse is "my loyal readers trust me whether or not I put up a disclosure". If they trust you so much why not put it up, then?

It's all about ethics. Yes your advertorial on brand X's camera may be excellent. But the fact remains that it's a completely different situation than if you were recommending the camera based on experience or your own research, and your readers deserve to know. Advertorials are biased by definition.

davidlian said...

@cheayee: I too would post the word 'advertorial.'
@tim: Good point - I always enjoy your comments. However, as semantic as this sounds, what I was referring to by "all my posts are belong to me" is that in the little space called your blog, you have the ultimate right to disclosure.

Yes, you surrender editorial control by taking some money, but ultimately, you get to control what is still published because you push the post button. If you want to screw an advertiser by publishing something that wasn't agreed upon, the power is yours.

The point I was trying to make is that as much as there are ethical conventions and considerations, as far as blogs go, we must at least recognise that ultimately it is in the hands of the blogger what they want to do and there is no recourse to respond from the reader other than to stop reading the questionable blog. Ultimately, the barometer is in the readership the blog attracts. And if that shrinks because of credibility issues, then that's something a blogger needs to think consider.

So yeah, personally, I would put the word 'advertorial' on an advertorial, but I don't think its fair to unilaterally demand the same of every blogger. There's plurality in the blogging world.

Tim said...

"If you want to screw an advertiser by publishing something that wasn't agreed upon, the power is yours."

Actually I'm pretty sure you can't do that :P.

Well I have qualms over those that cite static readership figures as evidence that "everything is ok" - blog readers don't put a premium on credibility so much as entertainment or sensationalism - or sex appeal heh. And there *are* many perfectly good advertorials out there. I just feel that with great readership comes great responsibility (corny, I know :3 )

izzat said...

"paid post" should have the blogger honest opinion, not just mumbling about the good, and some blogger(include me) just write the good without really use the product/service so it actually kill the purpose of "paid post".

For the ethic i believe just do what you think right :D

Marc said...

Interesting. Something to think about. . .

davidlian said...

@tim: My point exactly. The internet is a place for a plurality of opinions and just because some of us (bloggers, myself included) feel that we should insert the word 'Advertorial' does not mean that everyone else should and will adhere to it.
@izzat: Some bloggers would agree, some won't. Again, the internet is plural.
@marc: Thanks.