Its time for bloggers to decide exactly what kind of role they want to play in the free market of information and opinion.
The blogging community has often given the impression that they are totally separate from professional journalists and in some sense not subject to their ethical standards.
Fiercely independent, often unpaid, answering to no editor, except perhaps their Internet audience, bloggers are writing for their own satisfaction or to share their views with family, friends and anyone who happens to stumble across their dispatches in cyberspace.
Many bloggers, through their specialized knowledge, contacts and writing style have attracted substantial audiences. In some cases, they wield no small amount of influence with their following.
They often like to imply that because they are beholden to no editor or publisher, their work is more honest and pure than that of the poor wretches who report and write for a living.
But now they have discovered theyre fair game for manipulation by rich corporations who have always been ready to throw around money to influence journalists with all sorts of blandishments, dinners, sports events, travel junkets and expensive high-tech toys.
Thats why its not surprising to read Steven Vaughan-Nichols columndisclosing that a number of bloggers who write about Microsoft and its products received early Christmas gifts of Acer Ferrari laptops with a retail value of $2,299.
Those laptops were delivered through the courtesy of none other than Microsoft.
The idea was to give these bloggers a chance to test Windows Vista on the latest top-of-the-line hardware, with the hopes that they will be impressed enough to say nice things about Vista.
There is nothing wrong with temporarily lending writers hardware to test the latest software. This is done all the time by product reviewers and by the testing labs operated by many print and online publishers.
But this is done with the understanding that all the hardware and the software must be returned. If the reviewers have a reason to keep the products, then they must pay for them.
But bloggers who accept such hardware with no obligation to return it have to know that they are compromising their objectivity and honesty. Of course the audience will be none the wiser if the blogger never discloses that he or she accepted a free laptop as an inducement to write a product review.
Thats why bloggers as well as journalists have an obligation either to refuse such handouts, or if they do accept them to disclose it to readers so that they can judge whether or not their articles are objective enough to be believed.
Most media companies enforce rules that the writers that they employ are not allowed to accept any such gifts. Many ban writers from accepting so much as a free meal or taxi fare.
They enforce these bans because even the smallest gift carries with it the assumption that “Whose bread I eat—his song I sing.”
Singing for Your Supper
So should independent bloggers hold themselves to the same standard? Yes, if they want to maintain any semblance of real independence and if they want to be taken seriously by readers.
In fact, there is little difference between bloggers and journalists because more than ever they are one in the same: educated and trained professionals who are paid to publish news and opinions in blogs rather than on formal news Web sites.
Increasingly bloggers are fighting the same legal battles and claiming the same rights as professional journalists to report the news free of restraint from the courts, lawsuits and prosecutors.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation in May won an appeals court decision that stated that bloggers were protected by Californias reporter shield law and by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution from divulging confidential sources.
The decision involved an attempt by Apple Computer to force the owners of Mac rumor sites to divulge the sources for blogger reports that contained confidential information about unannounced Apple products.
The appeals court decision reversed an earlier California Superior Court decision that held that the rumor sites were obligated to disclose their sources.
So whether they like it or not, bloggers are in the same boat as professional journalists because on occasion they will find themselves under the same legal and ethical scrutiny as the professionals.
Many bloggers may have never taken a Journalism 101 course, but it behooves them to read up on the basics of ethics and press law. They will need to know how to respond when they get hailed into court on charges of libel, invasion of privacy, or by browsing prosecutors who want to know what confidential sources have been telling them.
A.J. Liebling, the renowned columnist and press critic, famously wrote: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
But today the Internet is our press and it has made us all publishers and journalists rolled into one. If we are going to take this power into our own hands, we have an obligation to our readers to wield it with some semblance of honesty and integrity.
Every time we accept gifts of any kind we are compromising our objectivity and independence. Even the bloggers who accepted laptops from Microsoft, but later published negative comments about Vista, cant claim the gifts didnt compromise their independence.
Accepting a free laptop means that your objectivity and cooperation is for sale and there is a debt that can be called in some day at the right moment.
Like it or not, bloggers have to accept that by default they are all part of the worldwide community of journalists. They have an obligation to adhere to a basic ethical standard if they expect their readers and the world at large to respect their work.
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on image editing and Web publishing tools.