A reader named Rebecca emailed me and suggested I write a post on ethics in blogging, social media and citizen journalism. As I’ve ranted about aspects of this for some time I thought it was a most reasonable request and so I decided to do it. What I describe here applies to personal blogs that are topic or location related. I am not talking about blogs that represent organisations or businesses.

The term blog is itself confusing as it refers to both the platform (such as Blogger or WordPress) and the content (personal opinion, discussion and commentary). The platforms are becoming sophisticated content management systems, so when I talk about a blog I primarily mean the content. I no longer call Fitzroyalty a blog – it is a site containing news and reviews about Fitzroy and other topics.

I cover some ideas here that are more publishing strategy than ethics, but I have done this in order to encourage critical reflection on the purpose of publishing a blog. I do my best to uphold these ethical positions in Fitzroyalty, and I have linked to posts that demonstrate the principles in action.

Good blogging ethics are not necessarily the same as traditional journalism ethics (though I have so many examples of the failure of allegedly professional journalists to uphold their ethical principles that ‘journalism ethics’ is little more than a bad joke to me).

Mission statement

This may sound tedious, but do you know what you aim to achieve with your blog? Is it to practice writing? To communicate social or political ideas? To be creative? To build an online community? If you don’t know what you’re doing this confusion or ambivalence will probably be reflected in your output. Try to define your purpose and then ensure that your content is consistent with that purpose.

Who is your audience?

Who are you writing for? Why should they read you? What do you give your audience that they cannot get anywhere else? Why should your audience care about what you write? What is your relationship with your audience? What do they expect from you? Do they trust you? Do they like you?

I have defined my audience as tertiary educated people living in the inner city suburbs of Melbourne. My audience are people living, working or visiting Fitzroy and its immediate surrounds. My purpose is to provide them with information relevant to this area.

Develop a voice

You don’t have to be objective. You don’t have to be real. My name is Brian Ward and I write and publish Fitzroyalty but if you think that the persona you see here is a straightforward representation of my real personality then you are naive and mistaken. My online persona is a deliberate and artificial construct designed to gain and retain your attention. If you want to stand out, be different. Many bloggers use anonymity as a narrative device.

Business or pleasure?

Do you write and publish for pleasure or to support or market a business? Are you non-commercial, not for profit or commercial (for profit)? Your commercial status should be obvious. Do you have a business model or a publishing strategy?

Fitzroyalty aims to provide a free service to the local community. It also aims to be a deliberate bad competitor that undermines the advertising business model that drives commercial local media. I differ from web 2.0 entrepreneurs in that I don’t want to make money from the interweb. I’m interested in the social utility of sharing content and ideas.

Advertising

If you include advertising on your site you are commercial (unless you use a free platform that includes advertisements as part of the service of providing the platform and you cannot remove them). Choosing to be non-commercial is a political statement. If you have the money and technical skills, publish your site in your own domain so you can control everything about your site. This symbolises that you are serious about being independent.

In a previous post I wrote that I will only advertise local businesses, products or services that are relevant to the Fitzroy audience, I will determine who advertises, and I retain the freedom to refuse advertising from a business I consider unethical or inappropriate. As no advertising platform can meet these standards, I don’t accept advertising.

Free goods or services

Are you given free or review copies of goods or services in exchange for discussing, mentioning or reviewing them? If so, you must disclose this. For example, I disclosed that I received a review copy of Pinky Beecroft’s debut album from his PR company in my review. I didn’t ask for it – they approached me after they read my reviews of his Melbourne gigs.

Honesty and disclosure

You will be writing about events you experience and ideas you value. You cannot be impartial so don’t try to be. Aim to be honest, transparent and disclose, rather than trying to avoid, conflicts of interest or other complications.

Don’t abuse your position

The currency of non-commercial blogging is influence and recognition. Don’t abuse your influence with your audience to ask for free stuff from businesses. Don’t draw attention to yourself in restaurants or tell them who you are in order to get free meals.

When Eileen from Brunswick St restaurant Yume offered me a free meal, I publicly declined and explained why. I acknowledged this again in my subsequent review.

Let businesses know you have reviewed them

I usually email somewhere I have reviewed and let them know about it. I get some great comments in response. I also get offers to come back for a drink and a chat, and I have done so at some places including the Rainbow hotel and Griff’s wine pub. I think it is ethical to accept a free drink afterwards in the spirit of building community relations as long as you’re not changing your opinion because of it.

Be generous to other bloggers

There is competition between food bloggers to be the first to review a new place. When I review somewhere that has already been reviewed, I link to previous reviews to demonstrate my awareness of their existence and to show that I appreciate their work. It is also convenient for the reader to be able to quickly compare reviews.

If I get in first and someone else then reviews the same place, I really appreciate being mentioned in return. Cindy from Where’s the Beef kindly linked to my review of breakfast at Juanita’s recently. It’s easy to work cooperatively with other bloggers to build great content. The more reviews the better for the business and the public.

Acknowledge change and update information

The net is dynamic. As information changes, so should your site. For example, I was initially unhappy with the way Localhero.biz aggregated my posts, but as Pete responded I acknowledged his points and altered my post accordingly. I also changed my opinion of Docoloco as it developed new features.

Copyright advice for publishers

Make an explicit statement about the copyright status of your publication. Use a creative commons license. Determine what is acceptable use of your content. This applies across all the platforms you use – blog, Flickr, Youtube, etc. Enforce your rights with extreme prejudice, particularly if your non-commercial content is being ripped off by a commercial publisher.

Copyright advice for bloggers

Sharing is good, stealing is bad. Before you reuse someone else’s content, check the copyright license conditions. If you can’t find any, email and ask. Don’t steal and hope you won’t get caught. If there is a license, abide by the conditions. In particular, don’t behave like the scum at News Ltd who misuse non-commercial content for commercial gain and who fail to provide attribution to bloggers.

For the non-commercial use of non-commercial content, attribution and a link is often all that is required. It’s quick and easy to do and represents a basic level of honesty, respect and professionalism. Failing to do this symbolises laziness and greed and is insulting to the person whose content has been misused.

When copyright is unclear

One situation that confuses many people is when marketing and publicity images are widely reproduced online without attribution, such as film and game images. When I write a post reviewing a film it may contain film images obtained from many different sites, none of whom own the images or provide copyright information about them. I don’t know who owns the images and cannot credit them although I want to.

The common practice has become to use such images without attribution as long as your purpose is for review or criticism, not commercial gain. It is not necessary to determine if the film studio or production company legally owns the images if you use them in a legitimate way in a review and it is clear to the reader that you are using the images only in the context of the review.

Fair use (US) and fair dealings (Australia)

These are concepts that allow for the use of copyrighted information without permission in special cases, such as reporting news and current affairs and criticism and review. You need to understand the laws and be able to justify your case. Fair dealings is not for copyright beginners.

Taking photos

Taking photos on private property is a difficult issue. Technically you need permission from the property owner but this is not always possible or practical. Imagine every food blogger asking their waiter for permission to photograph their food, or people out celebrating asking permission to take a group photo in a restaurant.

The general rule that has evolved is that if what you are photographing is not itself under copyright (such as a work of art) then it is acceptable to take photos.

Discretion is important. In a dimly lit romantic restaurant, using flash is a bad idea so make the best use you can of your low light settings on your digital camera. In a brightly lit casual place, flash is not a problem and the ambient light will probably be sufficient anyway. Behave appropriately.

Photographing works of art

I review art exhibitions regularly. When I go to the galleries I ask the owners or staff for permission. I have standing agreements with some galleries allowing me to photograph their shows. My purpose is not to make a high quality copy of an artwork that could be reproduced to disenfranchise the artist. I usually include the room, the audience or make the artworks small in the photos. I’m trying to capture what it’s like to be at the exhibition, not make it easy for someone to see all the art without going to the exhibition. There’s a significant difference. I report on the event, the opening night, not simply the art.

Taking photos in venues where it is banned

This is a case where I feel justified in breaking the rules. Many concert venues have signs stating that they ban photography. Why? At rock concerts I’m not disturbing the band or fellow audience members by taking photos. The weak flash in my consumer camera is no match for massive stage lights. In any case I usually shoot concerts using the ambient light from the stage without flash.

It’s clear that the venues don’t represent the wishes of the musicians. Musicians like NIN, Tori Amos or Peaches encourage fans to take photos to post on their sites. You’re contributing to their marketing and promotion. It’s great social networking for the bands.

At the Sydney Opera House when I saw Brian Eno, a no photography sign was outside every door. Why is photography wrong? If it is because the flash can be disturbing, ban flash, not cameras in general. At Eno I turned the flash off so it did not disturb the band or the audience during the performance. I only used flash at the end when the house lights were up and the band were being applauded.

I’m not breaching copyright because none exists in a live performance. It may or may not exist in an exhibition. Some photography policies (like those at the NGV) are nonsense. They’re not about copyright or disturbing others. They’re about social control.

Use common sense. Some rules are stupid and antiquated and should be broken. At Patti Smith’s 2008 Hamer Hall concert, she encouraged the audience to disobey the ushers and stand and dance in the isles.

Audio and video

Recording audio or video is a more complicated matter. Determining what you can do can be difficult. What are your motives? To record a great show that you will share online for free? Or to make a bootleg CD to sell? It is not ethical to financially benefit from someone else’s work. Beyond what the letter of the law states, intent is an important ethical consideration.

Sometimes you will be told that making recordings is banned. Corporations lie. Don’t believe them. As I have demonstrated, the FIA and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation lie to the Australian public about the copyright of Formula 1 fan recordings. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by corporate thugs.

Having followed Tori Amos across Australia in 2007 to see her perform in six different cities, I found that the photography and video policies at each venue were different. The Sydney Opera House allowed photos but not video. The Thebarton theatre in Adelaide did not care. For the most part rules banning video recording are meaningless. They don’t even know why they have these rules. A rule without a purpose should be challenged and overturned.

Believe in yourself

If you believe something, maintain the rage. Put the boot in when necessary. If your content is stolen, name and shame the offenders. Hold them to account. Demand that they take responsibility for their actions.

Moderation

If your blog allows people to comment then how you moderate it is important. What comments are reasonable and which unreasonable? You have to make up your own mind. Develop a position or policy and be as consistent as possible.

Enjoy what you do

You’re not doing it for money so it must be fun.

Further reading

The food blog code of ethics is thorough and worth reading. I don’t agree with all of it but it should help you determine your own values. The much simpler food blogger code of ethics provides a perfect summary.

a beginner’s guide to blogging ethics and strategy

9 thoughts on “a beginner’s guide to blogging ethics and strategy

  • 1 July 2009 at 3:12 pm
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    This is great, Brian! Lots of food for thought…

    Reply
    • 1 July 2009 at 3:18 pm
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      Thanks – it’s far from complete so I’m hoping to get some comments suggesting other ideas that should be covered.

      Reply
  • 1 July 2009 at 11:33 pm
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    Oh wait, you forgot one:

    Write badly
    Use poor grammar and punctuation while hoping to attract readers with a mix of ill-informed ranting and lame beat-ups.

    Reply
  • 2 July 2009 at 3:32 pm
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    Good one Brian. I nearly jumped in but I didn’t want to look pedantic.

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  • 5 July 2009 at 7:11 pm
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    Thanks – some really got points to consider. Em

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  • 8 July 2009 at 10:42 am
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    I am referring to my previous comment. You should underline ‘proof read before you publish’. In my comment got = good. A very strange slip of the fingers or was it a slip of the brain? Em

    Reply
    • 8 July 2009 at 10:51 am
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      I do it all the time too – can’t type as fast as I think!

      Reply

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