Wine Blogger Sample Disclosure Double Standard

ethics for bloggers and traditional journalistsAre wine bloggers and their traditional media counterparts held to a double standard on sample disclosures?  While it’s old news now, if you ask the FTC, then the answer is yes.  A recent article published by the Boston Globe and then an inquiry on common practice from an academic friend who is moving into a new vs. traditional media test environment for a high profile manufacturer put the issue back on the front burner.  I also discovered this 2010 warning to wineries regarding wine blogger sampling as developing legal issue advice from the law firm of Dickenson, Peatman, & Fogarty:

“When a blogger reviews a product, he or she must conspicuously disclose whether the company provided that product for free or otherwise compensated the blogger. If the blogger fails to make the required disclosure, the FTC could penalize both the blogger and the winery with fines of up to $16,000. Interestingly, the FTC explicitly states in the Guides that the disclosure requirements do not apply to reviewers in traditional media.”

WineZag gets free samples from wineries and PR companies.  Mostly, they are not worth reviewing and are average wines at best.  But, some merit reviews and it is always clearly indicated here if they were supplied free by the winery.  I don’t disagree with the the purity of transparency and benefit of disclosure.  It’s the double standard that makes little sense.

Recently, Boston Globe correspondent Kathleen Pierce wrote about the Boston Brunchers, an ad hoc group of social media oriented food writers.  All members are actively creating content on the usual social media platforms. Pierce calls into question the practice of free meals in exchange for reviews and attempts to create a distinction for traditional media reviewers by referring to them as the “bona fide” analog to bloggers:

“Although arrangements vary from business to business, Boston Brunchers do not pay for their meals, but they do leave gratuities and that second Bloody Mary is not on the house. They blog for their supper and tweet for their sweets. While bona fide reviewers, who taste anonymously and pay for everything, see this as a conflict of interest (what bad things are you likely to say when the meal is free?)…”

While it is only my opinion, there is a handful of serious food and wine blogs offering more insight and knowledge than a significant portion of traditional media reviewers. I prefer, trust, and rely on their content more than most traditional journalists.  Calling traditional media hands “bona fide” in comparison is a reflection of the small mindedness of Ms. Pierce and an embarrassment to the Boston Globe.

How many traditional media food and wine writers are invited on press trips with the hope of influencing them? How many PR companies entertain traditional journalists?  How many wine critics are provided free samples? The answer to all is lots. The real issue should center around ethics and transparency, not media channel distinction. Writers are human beings no matter where they publish. Their susceptibility to perquisite bias is equal in all cases. The seriousness in which writers approach the protection of their professional reputations (unwavering lack of distinction and truth in reviews for both gifted and purchased wine and food) is the ultimate arbiter of what is or is not “bona fide” content; not media channel.  Audience and influence builds around authentically honest and expert content and the writers that fail to abide by that through ethical wavering will be weeded out.

Both the FTC and the Boston Globe should reexamine their positions.

Note: Shortly after this post was published, my friend Rich at The Passionate Foodie, a top Boston Food Blog. shared his thoughts on the Boston Globe piece and his personal experiences with Ms.Pierce.  It’s worth checking out.

  • http://ancientfirewineblog.blogspot.com/ Jason Phelps

    Adam,

    Nailed it again. I always disclose so I can be on the legal side of the line, but I have often thought the double standard was odd. I don’t get much in the way of samples so the effort required here doesn’t even register. On the other I buy a lot of wine, and review or include some of it in my blog. I do this because I both control what I might write about and can also make an easy case for transparency and objectivity. I think having some “skin” in the game makes one more serious about their pursuits, but that is me.

    I thought the Globe article had a negative tone and a measure of fear, uncertainty and doubt was at work. I’ve brunched with the Boston Brunchers three times and had a great time at each outing. My very first one was at KO Catering & Pies. When I walked out of the shop with a big bag of to go pies that I paid for I more than felt that both parties (me and KO) got a fair deal out of it. I did write about my experience and in that case it was primarily because the food really was that good and I wanted to raise awareness for a new joint in town. I never wrote about my other two outings. They weren’t substandard, they were more social events for me and a few tweets to share what I was up to sufficed for me.

    Traditional media is likely concerned about independent groups out there who can scoop them with ease. With the businesses giving away the product for free those media outlets may now feel that they have an unfair standard to live up to. Oh well, change with the times. All I know is that this new media platform is working well based on the rapid filling of Boston Brunchers seats and the diversity of places the group visits.

    Cheers!

    Jason

  • http://twitter.com/pullthatcork Peter Bourget

    On pullthatcork.com we always disclose if what we review was given to us as a sample. I didn’t realize it was required by law. I certainly believe traditional media should be held to the same standards.

    I always assumed traditional media was given the product, I don’t know where I got that idea, it just seemed logical if you are making your living that way. I think most bloggers review wines for fun rather than to make a living and I feel that makes them more willing to buy products to review. I could be wrong there but that is what pops into my mind.

    From experience getting samples, discounted trips and in my real profession in the computer industry getting other favors or perks, can cloud your judgement as you may have made a personal connection. I find with a little discipline you can still be objective, however.

    Pete

  • awjapko

    Peter, there are thousands of reasons bloggers come to writing about wine, professional and personal. Whatever the reason, it should not infer varied levels of ethics nor disclosure. Glad you agree that media channel is also an unfair policy divider. Totally on board with your suggestion of objective discipline.

  • awjapko

    Jason, you get it and Kathleen Pierce has her head defensively stuck in the sand. I wonder if she ever took a trip or some entertainment from the trade? Probably good odds she did. Nevertheless, when you live the benefits of social media connection, content creation opportunities that flow out of it, and maintain your objectivity you are walking a straight path. You are, as Pierce says, BONAFIDE!

  • http://www.liquormart.com/ Omaha Wine Delivery

    I have to agree with your points here about ethics over whether payment was received or samples were used. I have sent samples to bloggers in the past, and all I ever received were honest reviews and straightforward people.

    Putting a penalty won’t make a difference, just another way to get around it.

  • awjapko

    OWD-We agree on the issue, but key question…would you continue to send to bloggers that failed to disclose and risk penalties?

  • http://twitter.com/UCBeau Beau

    I had no idea it was a legal requirement to disclose that I get samples, it was more a matter of integrity and giving my readers the most information I could. There’s a tired argument from lots of print media writers that “the fact that these are samples is implied”, but unfortunately that isn’t necessarily the case. Both print media and bloggers have things to learn from each other, and in this case I feel that print media are the ones who’ve got to make some changes..Good article, thanks for writing it.

  • awjapko

    Hey Beau, your work is real and is authentic. Bravo. That’s the most important thing…so just comply with the FTC disclosure as a matter of your ethical approach to reviewing.