Bloggers in Amsterdam: A Case Study in Media Ethics
A few days ago, Justin Abbott of BlogAds emailed asking whether I would be interested in going to Amsterdam for five nights as part of a promotional tour. The conditions were pretty straightforward:
In exchange for the trip, each blogger will a) be interviewed by someone (a blogger or Blogads) about their trip (the Dutch Tourism Board will have the right to use some or all of the interview for online and offline promotions), b) give Holland.com one month of premium adspace to be used at their discretion through June 1, 2006, and c) put a “Bloggers in Amsterdam” logo in your nav bar to disclose the nature of your trip.
After working out some logistical details, including arrangements to take my wife along at my own expense, I agreed.
Danny Glover (no relation, as far as I know, to the actor) thinks this is a violation of journalistic ethics:
Bloggers of all stripes love to bloviate these days about public officials who accepted money or luxurious treatment from corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff in his attempt to curry government favor for his clients. But that doesn’t mean bloggers are above accepting pampering by people with an agenda.
For the latest evidence, check the list of 25 bloggers who are headed to Amsterdam next month courtesy of Holland.com, the Internet presence of the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions, and the advertising firm BlogAds. Americablog, Ezra Klein, Outside the Beltway, Pandagon and TalkLeft are among the public-affairs-oriented blogs that will be represented on the weeklong junket.
Bloggers no doubt will justify the trip by highlighting the transparency of the junket. For one year, they must link to the Bloggers in Amsterdam disclosure statement, which itself notes the transparency “mantra.”
But curiously, the bloggers just started talking about the trip yesterday — and not all of them are doing so yet. If they really wanted to be transparent, why didn’t the bloggers tell their readers about the trip when the invitation was extended?
In my case, I hadn’t written about the trip before now because 1) I only agreed to go Thursday night, 2) the dates of my trip are not yet finalized, and 3) I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to read about it. Mostly number 3.
It’s true that I have at least obliquely criticized congressmen for accepting perks from people with business before their committees. The reason is obvious: the perception that their votes on important matters of public policy are up for sale.
What exactly is it that the bloggers going on this trip are “selling”? Basically, it’s an exchange of advertising space for plane tickets and a hotel stay. It’s a win-win for both sides. The retail cost of the air fare and hotel accomodations is roughly three times that of my monthly advertising rate. However, the Tourism Board is presumably getting those things comped (Amsterdam is a lovely place but not a popular February vacation spot), so it’s essentially free advertising.
Furthermore, it’s unclear to me why accepting a trip in exchange for advertising is more likely to compromise my ethics than taking money in exchange for advertising. Media outlets ranging from the New York Times to Joe Schmoe’s Blog routinely accept advertising from those they may potentially cover, whether it be corporations, political candidates, or tourist destinations.
What’s more, transparency is not sufficient justification for media outlets — and that’s what blogs want the U.S. government to call them — to accept favors from an agency with an agenda. Bloggers rightly maligned columnists Armstrong Williams and Doug Bandow for taking money from the Bush administration and Abramoff. Now some of the them are guilty of similar arrangements with the government of Netherlands, and they deserve the same scorn.
I did indeed take Williams, Bandow, and others to task for taking money for the express purpose of lending their reputations to causes paid for by their benefactor without disclosing that conflict. In this case, however, the bloggers are neither required to write anything about Amsterdam and are required to disclose the nature of the trip.
I have written 11,630 posts since starting OTB. Fewer than twenty of them mentioned Holland*, almost all in the context of debates over the shape of the European Union. The only slightly controversial post focusing on Holland was on the murder of Theo van Gogh.
No one who makes the trip is compelled to write one word, good or bad, about Amsterdam, and maybe some bloggers will return home and say nasty things about the place. But somehow I doubt they will.
It may well be that, as a consequence of visiting Amsterdam, I’ll write some nice things about Amsterdam. It’s not likely I’ll write much about it one way or the other. OTB isn’t a travelogue and I keep the personal stuff to a minimum because that’s not what you’re here for.
Will I write “nasty things”? Probably not, unless I’m really annoyed. But then I’m spending hard earned vacation days from my day job going on the trip because my preconception is that I will like Amsterdam. It’s not a fact finding trip; it’s a getaway.
My friend Mark Tapscott writes that, “Sooner or later, bloggers have to address these kinds of ethics issues, just as the mainstream media folks have been doing for decades.” I suspect that, over the strenuous objections of prominent bloggers like Jeff Jarvis, we will. The Media Bloggers Association–of which I am a board member–and others are working to do that.
The task will be more complicated than merely adopting standards that have evolved for professional reporters, however. While bloggers are journalists in the broadest sense of the word, we are also entrepreneurs.
I gave myself the title “Editor-in-Chief” mostly as a tongue-in-cheek play on the masthead pages of print opinion journals, where even kids right out of college are “editors” of some stripe, when OTB became a group blog and not just my own writing. There is, however, some truth to that title. In reality, I am not only the chief writer for the site but also the publisher, advertising manager, circulation manager, human resources director, and IT manager.
Because we wear so many hats, there is some balancing. I take advertising and accept free review copies of books, both of which are standard in the press–but usually handled by different people. Moreover, as Glover notes, bloggers are increasingly being wooed by politicians and others hoping to gain sympathetic coverage. The same is true of mainstream reporters, too.
Ultimately, however, readers will have to judge the results from themselves. You can rest assured that OTB will continue to feature the same level hard-hitting, no holds barred coverage of Netherlands tourism that you have come to expect over the last three years.
*A search of the archives for Holland yields 23 results, several of which were false positives from Americans named “Holland” or “Mulholland.”