Since writers started publishing (long before anyone thought of “blogging”) the need for transparency and disclosure has been important. People should be able to reasonably identify bias in someone’s writing, particularly a “reporter,” when that person is being paid or compensated in a way which could influence their shared ideas. The English Wiktionary currently defines “full disclosure” in the context of journalism as:

The disclosure of any connection between a reporter (or publisher) and the subject of an article that may bias the article.

Wow

In the case of blogs which cater to specific audiences, like Mommy-blogs, the line between objective evaluations of commercial products and paid-for product placement posts has often been blurred. The NPR story from July 2009, “Mom Bloggers Debate Ethics Of ‘Blog-Ola'” highlights some of these issues. According to the story:

“Blog-ola” is the free goodies, products, trips and other perks many marketers are giving to bloggers in hopes of getting favorable publicity or positive reviews. It’s a hot topic among “mommy-bloggers” in particular, who are proving to be quite influential with their readers.

The main issue is this: If a person or company gives a blogger something for free, and the blogger later writes something about that product, company, or individual, the background gift should be disclosed openly so the reading audience is not deceived into thinking the opinions they are reading are reasonably objective. In the left sidebar of my blog, I have a clear link to my own disclosure policy, and I always provide a “full disclosure” statement on any posts in which a conflict of interest might be perceived or real.

Disclosure policy available

I used the free website disclosurepolicy.org to create and then modify a personal disclosure policy. Educational blogger Miguel Guhlin has one of the most comprehensive and transparent blog disclosure policies I’ve seen to date. Last November, on day 24 of his “30 Days to Being a Better Blogger” series, Steve Dembo titled his post, “Disclose Yourself.” He encouraged bloggers to have a disclosure policy, follow their announced policy, and indicate in posts when a possible conflict of interest is present that would introduce bias into information shared online. That was excellent advice eleven months ago, and it’s even more important advice today.

This afternoon, the New York Times published the AP article, “Bloggers Must Disclose Payments for Reviews.” According to the article:

The Federal Trade Commission will try to regulate blogging for the first time, requiring writers on the Web to clearly disclose any freebies or payments they get from companies for reviewing their products.

The FTC said Monday its commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the final Web guidelines, which had been expected. Violating the rules, which take effect Dec. 1, could bring fines up to $11,000 per violation. Bloggers or advertisers also could face injunctions and be ordered to reimburse consumers for financial losses stemming from inappropriate product reviews.

The guidelines from Rich Cleland, assistant director of the FTC’s advertising practices division, are that:

…disclosure must be ”clear and conspicuous,” no matter what form it will take.

The new rules don’t take effect for a couple months, but it’s never been too early to create a disclosure policy.

Blog With Integrity is a site setup this past July to promote ethical blogging, including full disclosure. If you don’t have a disclosure policy on your blog, consider using and modifying one created with disclosurepolicy.org.

In his post today, “Enterprise 2.0: The phrase, the concept, the time scale,” David Weinberger models in-post disclosure which goes above and beyond “the call of duty” at the end of his first paragraph, using brackets. He wrote:

[Disclosure: Andrew is a Berkman Fellow. And Euan, Stowe, and Andrew are all friends of mine. And, while I’m at it, Euan’s post positively cites something I once said.]

The FCC isn’t requiring that we go to these lengths of disclosure, but U.S. bloggers WILL need to do more than many have done to date to meet the new FCC edict effective December 1st.

For other blog disclosure policy examples, check out the bottom of Will Richardson’s about page, Doug Johnson’s endorsement policy page, and Kevin Jarrett’s disclosure policy. (Also don’t miss Miguel Guhlin’s, which I previously mentioned.) It was harder than I thought it would be to find sample disclosure polices on Edublogger sites. I’m expecting that will be changing in the next couple months!

Here’s a collaborative wiki idea for someone to start, or something which could be added to the “Support Blogging” wiki: Start a list of sample edublog disclosure policy links!

Hat tip to Blog Oklahoma for the link to this NYT article. See the FTC press release, “FTC Publishes Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials” for more details. This appears to be the key guideline.

The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization. And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.

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  • Wes,

    Before I become an educator I was a journalist and did a lot of entertainment reporting. Once, while working for a small entertainment paper in Los Angeles, I flew to NY, was picked up by a limo, and stayed at a very nice hotel all paid for by at least one movie studio. This was (and I believe is) a common practice. While there I had to go see a couple of movies that were going to be released in the following weeks and I conducted interviews with several of the actors. I then went home (eventually – we were stuck in NY for two extra days because of a blizzard) and wrote articles about the movies and actors for my paper.

    Is the FCC working on the assumption that the general public knows that this is how it works with entertainment reporting? What if an entertainment blogger gets the same treatment that I listed above? Are they in a different category than those who work for print, radio or television?

  • Hi Wes,
    I appreciate your post and will most likely create my own disclosure policy for my blog, although I don’t have anything to discose; I think! I’ve often thought about what exactly makes a person a consultant. These questions have been in my mind for a long time. Perhaps you know the answers:

    To be called a “consultant,” does money have to change hands? For those of us who are Discovery Educators, for example, and attend special events where Discovery pays for our hotel and meals, and engages us in focus-group situations, does that make us consultants?

    What about if I’m invited to s conference to present and the conference owner pays for my airfare and hotel. Am I technically a consultant for that company?

    It’s not only an issue with blogging, it’s also an issue in our jobs where conflicts of interest might occur as well.

    Its unclear what’s really necessary to disclose. I wonder if anyone else struggles with this.

  • Lee: I think all those things you mention can fit into a disclosure policy. I don’t think this is about “being a consultant,” I think it’s about anything you receive from anyone that could influence your opinion about a topic, product, company, etc.

    I agree it is not as clear as it needs to be. I’m thinking I probably need to add some things to my own disclosure policy, like the things I’ve done / received as an ADE and now a GCT.

  • Wes,
    Perhaps I’ve missed something, but it seems that there must be a dollar figure at which disclosures are or are not required. For example, when I write about VoiceThread I obviously should disclose that VoiceThread paid for a significant portion of my trip to NECC. But the next time I write about Edublogs should I also be required to disclose that Sue Waters gave me a couple dozen Edublogs buttons? When I worked in the business world there was a dollar threshold that had to be met before disclosure was required. I don’t remember what the threshold was, but I it was significantly more than the cost of a round of golf.
    Richard

  • This is great news, if we don’t want free speech or individual rights.

    It has come to a point where few people understand the line between freedom and protection, on the one hand, and government overstepping its bounds and violating our rights, on the other. Without this understanding, free speech is doomed and so are the rest of our rights.

    If someone makes a statement in an online review regarding a product and fails to disclose payment from a third party it does not violate my rights, because I am free to make up my mind either way based on the information that *is* provided. Failing to provide information is not a falsehood, nor does it necessarily constitute fraud, which is the only legitimate reason to investigate it. I can simply *not accept it*, if I choose.

    If I want to ask the blogger about their relation to the companies involved I can do that, and they can either tell the truth, not answer, or answer falsely which would be fraud and could be prosecuted.

    It is not a journalist’s *duty to provide information* that I need to make a decision simply because they choose to blog on a topic; to impose this sort of positive obligation on media outlets is to make them a veritable slave to others. If the government steps over this line and forces media to provide information, it is government that has committed a transgression, not the blogger. In such a case, government has used force against a citizen who was not violating anyone’s rights. That is the definition of the violation of freedom and of individual rights: unprovoked use of force.

    The line in the sand that is becoming obscured is that individuals should be free to say as little or as much as they wish, provide they do not make fraudulent claims. Otherwise, government should have no say and take no action whatsoever. Once this line is crossed, there is literally no significant principle standing in the way of government with regard to written content. Anything the public does not like, and tells government they should have, can be forced out of us.

    What if regulators think that political writers should be forced to disclose their membership to past political organizations, because the public “needs” that information to make an informed decision? What if regulators think scientific publications should be forced to provide alternative theories, because the public “needs” all the facts to make a decision? What if regulators decide that companies need to forced to provide information against the products they are marketing, so that we can make a “balanced” decision. Oh, wait, they already have to do that 😉

    Please, learn about individual rights, free speech, and fight for it. Free speech in electronic media is at stake.

    See:
    Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
    http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=media_topic_freespeech

    Jeff Montgomery
    http://funwithgravity.blogspot.com/

  • Wesley,

    It’s great that you disclose your commercial links, however there is a big difference between you doing it because you are responsible, and the FTC forcing it. It’s very important that journalists understand the difference.

    To quote from a comment I attempted to post at iLounge. I tried here once already, so I apologize if this shows up twice:

    “This is great news, if we don’t want free speech or individual rights.

    It has come to a point where few people understand the line between freedom and protection, on the one hand, and government overstepping its bounds and violating our rights, on the other. Without this understanding, free speech is doomed and so are the rest of our rights.

    If someone makes a statement in an online review regarding a product and fails to disclose payment from a third party it does not violate my rights, because I am free to make up my mind either way based on the information that *is* provided. Failing to provide information is not a falsehood, nor does it necessarily constitute fraud, which is the only legitimate reason to investigate it. I can simply *not accept it*, if I choose.

    If I want to ask the blogger about their relation to the companies involved I can do that, and they can either tell the truth, not answer, or answer falsely which would be fraud and could be prosecuted.

    It is not a journalist’s *duty to provide information* that I need to make a decision simply because they choose to blog on a topic; to impose this sort of positive obligation on media outlets is to make them a veritable slave to others. If the government steps over this line and forces media to provide information, it is government that has committed a transgression, not the blogger. In such a case, government has used force against a citizen who was not violating anyone’s rights. That is the definition of the violation of freedom and of individual rights: unprovoked use of force.

    The line in the sand that is becoming obscured is that individuals should be free to say as little or as much as they wish, provide they do not make fraudulent claims. Otherwise, government should have no say and take no action whatsoever. Once this line is crossed, there is literally no significant principle standing in the way of government with regard to written content. Anything the public does not like, and tells government they should have, can be forced out of us.

    What if regulators think that political writers should be forced to disclose their membership to past political organizations, because the public “needs” that information to make an informed decision? What if regulators think scientific publications should be forced to provide alternative theories, because the public “needs” all the facts to make a decision? What if regulators decide that companies need to forced to provide information against the products they are marketing, so that we can make a “balanced” decision. Oh, wait, they already have to do that 😉

    Please, learn about individual rights, free speech, and fight for it. Free speech in electronic media is at stake.

    See:
    Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
    http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=media_topic_freespeech

    Jeff Montgomery
    http://funwithgravity.blogspot.com/

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  • brosephine

    I liked what I read here but I should tell you, I only found your blog because I googled the wrong thing (“FCC” instead of “FTC”). You’re not gonna fix the title of this blog entry, bro?

  • Thanks for pointing out my FTC / FCC typo. I renamed the post to correct this.

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