Ethics And The Online Journalist, Here, There, And Everywhere
On Twitter today, mediabistro's PRNewswer reposted TrylonSMR's Matt Caldecutt's link to a Viceland article (adult language and situations for you sensitivo's out there) about the author's trip on Thrillist's JetMystery. First, it made me chortle. Then, it made me nod knowingly about the sparse coverage of a veritable breeding ground for scandal. What exactly was on that release everyone signed? I haven't seen anyone publicly shamed this time around, but the FTC disclosure hub bub and the typical "tsk tsk" reaction to yet another Thrillist jet-setting resurrected my dorman internal debate on ethics and the media professional.
Covering advertising and media, I'm assaulted with ethical quandaries on the daily. Well, they're not quandaries to me because my self-enforced ethical guidelines read something like this: don't be an ass, and don't make MediaPost look like they breed asses. Depending on where you get your paycheck, being an ass comes with varying degrees of acceptance. Sometimes I slip, because I'm human, and these slips are the gunshots in the air that get me back in line with the rest of the chain gang. Walk with me, talk with me, I want to dissect some potentially ethically vague situations that have two sides, as every situation does, that may slow your pointy finger of judgment or accelerate it, depending on where you stand.
The price of free. Why, in the land of goodie bags, raffles, and freebies, is the online journalist or blogger immediately the bad guy? Once, I got booed at a holiday party for winning a raffle. I'm sorry, wasn't that random? Are you insinuating that because of said win, I will only write favorably about the hosting company or the prize? Screw you for thinking I can be bought.
In the land of freebies, two inhabitants can potentially behave unethically. I see it as analogous to the "free lard upgrade!" fast food joints. Who's at fault, the fatty or the lard dealer?
Brands that deliver freebies with the expectation of a good review should wear the scarlet letter right next to the journalist who accepts it as pay for play. You can hope like hell for a positive "review," but expect it? Request it? Use the age-old language of bribery?
While we're at it, let's talk about press passes. You all know that press pass = free entry right? If not, wake up. I receive tiny buckets of press releases that 61% of the time are aligned with the beat of this column and invitations to myriad "events" that 62% align with the beat of this column. No matter how big or small the event, it never crosses my mind that I'm expected to write favorably about it and I trust (key word) others in our industry to do the same. So now I ask you, what is the difference between scoring a press pass that costs everyone else nearly two grand, and going on a weekend "junket"?
Your definition and my definition of junket will always be different. I'm going to use Thrillist as an example, because they've been the launch pad for lots of finger pointing in the direction of "ethically compromised" media types. Because I cover events and parties, if the party is in the air or on the roof, I'm covering it. I went on Thrillist's Jet Vegas last year. When "you bad bad press people" articles came out, I wasn't mad, because I knew they weren't talking about me. Also, I'm pretty nameless, so they literally weren't talking about me.
Was I on some moral and ethical high horse when I declined to go on the Thrillist JetMystery trip? Please. I declined because one, my passport expired and I was too lazy to get that remedied, two, I don't like being party hostage. I like to control my own departure. It's weird, I know, but I've had near panic attacks on boat parties because I can't just GET OFF when I want to. Thirdly, and most importantly, I still felt the sting from the Thrillist Hamptons party, where I imbibed way too much and spent three days feeling barfy from anxiety about potentially embarrassing photos that would reflect poorly on me as a person who wants to be respected -- and on MediaPost by proxy.
The pictures weren't scandalous, but when I discovered that someone from Thrillist is friends with a close "real" friend of mine and that they had a conversation where the sentence "I don't think I can ever take her seriously after that" (referring to me, in my vodka haze stuffing a beach ball up my dress and pretending I was on "I didn't know I was pregnant"), I wanted to quit and do data entry in the basement of a slaughterhouse.
But see, that's also me, and the way I want to be viewed as a writer, a communicator, a representative of my company, and, more important than that: as a representative of myself.
Here comes my finger. When I saw photos from JetMystery, I did a cartoon double-take when I spied Gideon Yago. What next? Brian Williams going to Hedonism II with UrbanDaddy? Within seconds I reversed my disappointment because, what, is Yago not allowed to have fun? Maybe he was doing some research for the next season (if there is a next season) of the IFC Media Project. And even if he's not, did he come home and write a blog post or produce a podcast or vodcast outlining the benefits of a Stabucks Via and Coldeeze cocktail? And, more important, do YOU care?
In the end, the reader will select whom to continue relying on as a trusted resource, right? Does the fact that Senior Technology Editor Chauncey McCracken was photographed in his bright orange banana hammock grinding on Fashion Editor Buford Conklin in Jamaica negate Chauncey's ability to smoke out a Wall Street rat or deliver breaking news in easily digestible chunks?
I guess what I'm trying to say. 800 words or so later, is that if your personal and professional ethics are solid, the most decadent junket won't make a dent. Also, I have nothing against Thrilllist, they're just a nice tangible example for an intangible situation. That team is a case study in image consistency and their Director of Communications, Flavie Bagnol , is housemother to the largest fraternity on America's campus and a media relations magician. And don't think she doesn't love that these junkets recreate the "serious press wouldn't go!" debate.
There are plenty of more disturbing ethical (or maybe just bloody annoying) quagmires that slowly drown online journalists' and bloggers' credibility than hopping on a jet with strangers, maintaining varying states of drunkenness for 96 hours, and getting laid. Things like use of photos without proper credit (mouseover alt text is not acceptable, but I suppose that's better than no credit at all), link-baiting with false statements as questions, aggregating content under one theme without thought (my piece on the "White Collar" party ended up on an aggregation site focusing on breakin' the law! Breakin'the law!), overtly trading conference passes for positive reviews and Twitter coverage, PR types blogging on "personal" blogs and "personal" Twitter handles about clients without disclosing in the tweet or in their bio who they represent, and ANYONE asking ANYONE to change posts/articles/commentary that alter factual history.
On a lighter note, I'm offended that these fickle fingers of judgement articles label the JetMystery guests as "media elite." The same outlets that pooh-pooh micro celebrity keep calling a healthy dash of online journalists "media elite." Do they not know that I was invited, too? Hardly elite.