Are 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.