Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cracking the Codes

A couple weeks ago, a proposed "Food Blog Code of Ethics," followed shortly by some Reviewers' Guidelines from the same site, got quite a bit of play. Much of it is actually duplicative of what's in the Association of Food Journalists' Food Critic's Guidelines, though perhaps a "lite" version. Being a conscientious type, I spent a good bit of time thinking these things over. There are some good if not particularly revolutionary ideas in there - be accountable; be civil; reveal biases and comps; don't plagiarize; be fair to new restaurants. There are some others that may not work for every situation - don't post anonymously;[1] try to visit more than once before posting;[2] wait at least a month before reviewing a place.

Caught somewhat asleep at the switch, eGullet chimed in several days later with the assertion that they'd actually been hard at work on this for years, linking back to a thread from late 2007 which started with the prospect of a "list of guidelines" for posters, and quickly degenerated into a classic example of the meta-discussion to which the intertubes are prone, fading off into oblivion (with no guidelines) more than a year ago. The proposed eGullet code which emerged a week ago is not too dissimilar, though with more of a focus on site maintenance issues and less on aping the AFJ's guidelines. Meanwhile, the eGullet proposal prompted this rather pointed and ad hominem response from another website.

After much deliberation, I'm staying out of the fray. I operate by some simple rules:
  • Be honest.
  • Don't be a douche.

If that's a "code," then so be it.

[1]This would appear to be a fairly loose rule, given this exception: "Even if we choose to write anonymously for our own personal or professional safety, we will not post anything that we wouldn’t feel comfortable putting our name on and owning up to." I'm good with that.

[2]Again, this one seems to have been softened from the initial draft, now acknowledging "We realize that this is an ideal. Some people are writing about restaurants that they go to in their travels, and most of us don’t have the money to go to places more than once (and find it especially hard to cough up the extra dough if a place stinks the first time we go). If you only go to a restaurant once, just say so."


  1. Ad hominem? My feelings are hurt.

  2. I doubt it, I suspect you're a pretty thick-skinned type. *) It may all very well be true - and if so, it's pretty disappointing to hear, though I've never been very deep into eGullet anyway (the Florida board is moribund) - but I didn't really see that your post did much to advance the ball on whether "codes" are a good thing and if so what they ought to be, which is what I've been interested in the past week.

  3. My post isn't about whether a code is a good idea or not, it's about Steven Shaw not being in a position to be the one to propose a code because of what look like a series of significant ethical lapses in the past. I haven't thought about "the code" yet, but my initial instinct is to say that it isn't needed. I am going to compose a blog article about the merits at some point.

  4. Well, that's exactly why I described your post as "ad hominem." I would be interested in your thoughts on the whole "code" idea. I think there's some good aspirational goals in there, but I'm not sure I see the point of a "code" or a "badge". One fundamental problem is that there's no teeth - who is going to police it? Ultimately it's all self-regulating, which is exactly where we are now.

    Like anything on the internet, I think you need to take everything you read with a grain of salt and make credibility assessments carefully and after much reading.

  5. Drama on the Internets? Never!

    I'm glad you offered an amendment to the idea of visiting more than once. In a perfect world, I would visit a restaurant as many times as it takes to feel confident in my impression of their business. It's hard to put a number on that; is two enough? Sometimes, no. Regardless, even in traditional media we don't always have the budget to visit multiple times. Obviously, that statement will get little play with those who fund their endeavors out of their own pocket. In many cases, I do as well. It's one of the reasons that I tend to write about less expensive establishments - my love for BBQ and hamburgers and other types of culturally ingrained people's food notwithstanding. But on my salary, there's no way I could take it upon myself to supplement adventures at pricier digs, no matter how much I'd like to.

    Anyway, nice post.

  6. "Be honest.
    Don't be a douche."
    Unfortunately, the first is completely subjective, and the second is actually how I define myself. Hmmm.

    The first and only rule I have is to be a good writer, and that goes for (unpaid) blogging as well as for actual paid pieces. Everything else will follow.


  7. An ad hominem post would mean that I was using Shaw's alleged behavior as an argument against there being a code of ethics. I haven't come out against a code although I believe that is how I am going to come down once I think it through.

  8. Danny - you're granted special dispensation from my Rule #2.

  9. these "codes" are really just reminders for non-professionals and non-journalists, since so many "amateur" bloggers are getting in on the reviewing act. As you say guidelines are covered thoroughly by the Association of Food Journalists; the current buzz doesn't cover much new territory. Nobody's gonna police this; it's merely a reminder to be ethical. Bad reviews can cost people their livelihoods (like bad restaurants can cost customers their paychecks) -- it's just important to remember that and try to be fair and accountable and keep your conflicts of interest (I know the chef; they paid for my dinner, etc) out in the open.

  10. Can someone tell me if there is a reason for a blogger code of ethics? Did something bad happen or is this just another example of certain people trying to aggrandize their own position in the overall conversation on the 'Net for their own benefit?

  11. Steve - I don't think there was any particular precipitating event. The first initiative came from a couple food bloggers who I'd never heard of (no slam against them - I'm sure they haven't heard of me either!), but seems pretty earnest and well-intentioned. It has gotten a lot of media attention and the authors don't seem to have used it to try to capitalize on other ventures.

    But there are recurring issues and concerns that probably make it an appropriate subject for conversation. There's often a good bit of antipathy between restaurants and bloggers due to perceptions of unfairness and abuse. On the other side of the ledger, there are reliability issues due to perception of bloggers who are just looking for freebies, access, etc.

    In addition, as my subsequent post indicates, this is a recurring issue not just for bloggers but for the "mainstream" media as well.

    I'm not convinced we need a code, but I think it's a good thing to be talking about.

  12. Here is what I just posted on a different discussion forum about this topic. Bloggers have an advantage over the mainstream media, specifically because we don't have the burden of complying with these types of codes. As a result,the information that we offer is often much more relevant and insightful than what the mainstream media reports. In reality, the proposed codes are intended to limit the advantages that new media has over old media, for the benefit of old media.

    Now this doesn't mean that bloggers shouldn't act in an ethical manner. But the definition of what is ethical for a blogger, and what is ethical for a newspaper journalist, are two different things.

  13. Thank you Frod. So I guess we are back to no rules. Oh wait, I left one out...try to be entertaining. Thanks for reminding me, Plotnicki. Although I agree with Steve that this 'code' thing just seems to come up every now and then for no particular reason. I also feel that much of this has been covered ad nauseum, especially on the much-esteemed PressChops. Self-aggrandizement aside.
    As far as amateur vs. professional, Gail, that is also a discussion whereby the so-called pros take the so-called amateurs to task. But the problem is that the pros have gotten so much wrong for so long that the ama's have had to take over. And, oddly, many of them do a better job. Ethics? That can swing both ways, and does. Like me, for one example. Well, I'm off for free drinks and food at some Brustman/Carrino event that I will be lavishing with praise later. Toodaloo.

  14. eGullet has now released (in "final") its code: eGullet ethics code.

  15. Nice discussion. I'm not sure that a code is necessary, but I think that it helps for people coming to a blog for the first time to have a sense of what that blogger's values are and where that blogger is coming from. Someone who has a bias or is a shill will become obvious over time if not initially. The first time visitor won't necessarily be able to glean anything with certainty just by the presence of a badge, but if posted along with an explanatory statement by the blogger, it may provide some insight into the reliability of said blogger. I don't think that it is a big deal either way, but see no reason to not adopt one.

  16. The problem with a badge is that if it becomes widely accepted, it taints blogs that don't have it. For example, OA's goal is for me to get the best meal possible so I can communicate that info to readers. And while I always disclose what is going on, some people say trying to get special treatment is unethical behavior. What will happen if the badge catches on, and because of the above, the blog people refuse to give me a badge, and my business suffers as a result?

  17. In terms of a precipitating event... I'm sure it couldn't be that the two young ladies who proposed the code that started all this nonsense just happen to be about to publish a book on food blogging... it's just a coincidence.

  18. "Can someone tell me if there is a reason for a blogger code of ethics? Did something bad happen or is this just another example of certain people trying to aggrandize their own position in the overall conversation on the 'Net for their own benefit?"
    Is Plotnicki correct here?

  19. In followup to SaltShaker's comment, the authors' respective websites both say they are working on a "culinary guidebook". I'm not looking to defend them, but I've not seen anywhere else that they're writing a book on food blogging (though they might now!).

    But more generally, I'm not sure how you ever respond to a charge that someone is "trying to aggrandize their own position in the overall conversation on the 'Net for their own benefit". Couldn't the same charge be leveled against just about anything someone posts on the web? I can only judge by what's on the FBCE website itself, which contains very little in the way of self-promotion.

  20. "I'm not sure how you ever respond to a charge that someone is "trying to aggrandize their own position in the overall conversation on the 'Net for their own benefit"."

    Well on what basis are these two women qualified to be the arbiters of who is ethical and who isn't? And I ask that question both from the perspective of qualification and stature. I mean why have they decided that they should be the ones to do this? I never knew them to even write an important blog in the past. So when someone proposes that they be the ones to fix a situation that is not broken (no one has been able to offer an example of unethical behavior), what other reason could there be for their putting themselves forward other than self-promotion and self-aggrandizement?

    There is one more thing to add to this. Codes of ethics are usually adopted by a not for profit organization that is run by the people who belong to a certain industry. Like the International Federation of Journalists launched a global intitiative in 2008. The idea that a privately held organization, that is a profit center or has ulterior motives of their own can govern what constitutes ethical behavior is preposterous.

  21. I forgot to rewspond to this point made by Frod:

    "Couldn't the same charge be leveled against just about anything someone posts on the web?"

    The difference is that the average person who posts on the 'Net isn't trying to control the behavior of other bloggers. That's where the self-aggrabdizement comes in.

  22. Steve, what difference does it make who is proposing anything? I don't really care if something is self-aggrandizing or not, if what is said makes sense and is good. To decry a proposal not on its merits but simply because of the perceived qualifications or reasons of those who proposed it is an ad hominem attack. Either the proposal makes sense and is good or it doesn't. These codes are by no means perfect and have ample room for discourse. I just don't think from whom they have come is pertinent.

    As for the for-profit vs. non-profit issue (which I once again don't think matters 2º to the above), for the sake of argument, eGullet, a non-profit, has proposed a similar code.

    The only part of the code, to which I take issue is the one in eGullet's which specifies that each and every comp or freebie need be explicitly revealed. While I think that it is good policy to state one's approach towards comps and freebies, I think it somewhat onerous and unnecessary to have to be explicit each and every time.

  23. For some reason my last response to Doc' hasn't appeared so let me respost it. The reason the qualifications, stature and ethics of the people who proposed these codes comes into question is because no one has been able to make a case for why there needs to be a code, other than supposition that it would be a good thing. So since the issue can't be settled based on real life examples of unethical behavior, it is reasonable to look at the motives and the credibility of the people proposing it. In this instance, the qualifications, and past behavior makes them incredible, lending weight to the argument that we don't need a code. But nowhere have I said that the propsed code is bad merely because of who proposed it. I agree that would be ad hominem.

    As an aside, I don't understand why people are discussing whether the proposed codes are good or bad before it is determined whether there is a need for code. Saying that it's a good idea, without trying to fix an actual problem, reminds me of people who want there to ban flash photography in restaurants without ever having complained about it before.

  24. I agree with questioning the need for a code in the first place. Blogs are not primarily intended to be sites where people come once for a specific piece of information then never return. The vast majority are intended as components of a vast online community, in which people visit repeatedly and get to know a blog and how it operates over time. Those of us who are into blogging become attracted to and follow various blogs for a number of reasons, but are not likely to follow those from whom we develop a sense of a lack of integrity. I have no qualms whatsoever about the blogs that I list on my site.

    I think that this also applies to online discussion forums, but the need may be greater there as they have a greater tendency to be less personal and more anonymous.

    I have signed on to the eGullet code, because I am generally not uncomfortable with it and see little downside. I agree, though, I am not convinced of a need for a specific code.

    As for flash photography in restaurants, I do not think it should be banned, though I don't approve of it and never do it myself anymore (I did when I first started photographing restaurant food). I would prefer that restaurants provide adequate lighting for photography without flash, :)

  25. You see I don't think you have addressed the issue of ethics. A code of ethics is something that is widely adopted by people who practice a profession. They adopt the code to guarantee the public that they will be treated ethically, and to insolate themselves from members of their profession who act in an unethical manner. The issue that you raise about bloggers and discussion forum posters is really about good/bad faith in posting, not about ethics.