Blogs and Trust

    April 1, 2005

Lee Hopkins raised an old question in a new context in yesterday’s installment of For Immediate Release.

With media growing more and more dependent on bloggers for information, how will the media-and the audiences that pay attention to them-know whether the source material was objective or bought and paid for?

There certainly have been plenty of instances in which bloggeers have been revealed to be something other than what they portrayed themselves to be. Political bloggers on both sides of the fence, for instance, have been outed as paid representatives of one campaign or another. And while CMS company Marqui has asked its paid bloggers to be upfront about the relationship, there’s no assurance that all of them have adhered to the rules.

But Hopkins isn’t just treading old ground. Instead, he’s revisiting the quesiton in light of such instances as MSNBC’s use of citizen journalists to cover the latest earthquake in Indonesia. MSNBC’s decision to publish the accounts of local residents made sense, given the time it would take to get staff journalists on the ground on the remote island hardest hit by the quake. There’s not much opportunity for a blogger with an agenda to abuse this particular story, but if MSNBC can call on citizen journalists to cover a quake, it’s only a matter of time before other major media start tapping into the collaborative online work of citizen journalists to cover other stories. (Today, MSNBC’s citizen journalism site is collecting bloggers’ thoughts on the passing of Terri Schiavo.)

Hopkins writes,

But what if your blogger is just someone with a winning way with words who readily accepts financing from a third party in order to both fund his hobby and to put bread on the table? Where does the ethical line lie?

Hidden agendas in the world of blogs and wikis are as likely to be revealed as not. The folks at WordPress, the free blogging software tool, probably thought it was no big deal when they populated their Web site with a flood of short articles containing popular search terms, all part of a deal that paid the site owners to help game the Google search engine rankings. The articles were visible to the Google search agents, but hidden from visitors to the site. It only took one blogger to reveal the practice. WordPress is now in damage-control mode.

While that’s not the same as a blogger presenting sponsored content as personal opinions, it does suggest that the blogging community does a pretty good job of policing itself. Still, it’s not unreasonable to believe a blog post can wind up on MSNBC-or WebProNews, for that matter-where readers will absorb the information without knowing that it’s tainted.

In the anarchic, wild west of the blogosphere, readers have to put themselves in a “buyer beware” frame of mind-something we know most readers won’t do. As word spreads of increasing violations of an unwritten code of ethics-and you’d better believe the mainstream media will cover it-all citizen media content will be suspect.

For those who plan to use blogs to communicate, the answser is simple: Disclose your relationships. Disclose relationships that are pertinent to the blog or wiki in general on the home page. Disclose those relevant only to a specific post within the post. As long as you’re candid, you’ll be credible.

Link: For Immediate Release

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.