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An Unconventional Blog Tour: Objectivity and Transparency Online

by Kim on May 31, 2012 · 15 comments

This post is part of An Unconventional Blog Tour, the brainchild of Kelly (Stacked) and Liz (A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy). Throughout the week, bloggers have tackled blogging topics related to ethics, politics and practices through their own experiences and backgrounds with those topics. You can find links to all of the other awesome posts over at Stacked. I’m honored and excited to be part of the tour.

As I’ve mentioned in passing a few times before, in my “real life” I work as a newspaper editor at a small, weekly community newspaper in rural Minnesota. Before taking this job, I studied English and journalism at a small liberal arts college, and went on to get a master’s in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The journalism theory class I took in Madison that impacted me most as a journalist and a blogger was an ethics course called Ethics on the Digital Frontier. During the class, we looked at principles of ethics generally and journalism ethics specifically, then tried to apply those principles to the real-world issues that are emerging as communication — both professional and personal — moves online.

I took the class right around the time the Federal Trade Commission released their revised Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements in Advertising, which was great fodder for class discussion. If you don’t remember, those rules said, in part, that,

while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

Because I was both frustrated and concerned by the issues the revised FTC Guides raised, I did a couple of papers for this ethics class looking at the intersection of blogging and journalism ethics, specifically the issues of objectivity and transparency. (I even wrote about the project here on the blog, and solicited some feedback on the FTC Guides for my final paper).

Anyway, that’s a long-ish way of getting around to introducing the topic I’m writing about for the blog tour — objectivity versus transparency, and what guidance those two ethics might be able to offer book bloggers as we go about our day-to-day blogging habits or face bigger ethical questions. I know it’s a little more abstract than some of the other topics on the tour, but I hope you’ll stick with me!

Also, I haven’t done a ton citing sources in the main part of this piece (other than direct quotes) because most of this information came from books or articles that aren’t easily linked to online. But, I do have a references section at the end if you want to learn more.

Theories of Objectivity and Transparency

The idea of objectivity has a long history in print journalism. It became part of American journalism codes of ethics in the 1920s, then gained more recognition in the 1940s and 1950s as a response to both accusations of journalistic bias and as a way to sell more newspapers. Since then, the idea of objectivity has evolved to include practices of verification, fair and balanced reporting written in a third-person voice, and standards for neutrality.

More recently, the idea of objectivity has evolved from thinking of objectivity as the end goal of journalistic writing to a method to be used during news gathering and writing. One idea that I’ve always felt made sense was the idea of pragmatic objectivity, which asserts that journalism is an active, interpretive, cultural activity and happens in newsrooms that test stories to find bias, challenge facts, and prevent uncritical reporting.

Transparency, on the other hand, is a much newer ethic that has its origins in the online world. According to a couple of the scholars I researched, the idea of transparency assures that all players are speaking the same language, including what we say and what motivates us. Jane Singer, one of my favorite journalism scholars, also says transparency includes “being honest about the nature of what is known and how that knowledge has been generated.”

More practically, transparency (for bloggers or journalists) includes being open about personal biases or conflicts and linking to articles or sources when they’re cited in a piece. In this way, a writer’s expertise comes from a reputation over time as well as the ability to read source material and compare conclusions. What’s cool to me about the idea of transparency is that it’s an ethic that is slowly moving from online to being embraced in traditional newsrooms — something that doesn’t happen very often!

The reason it makes sense to compare these two ethics though is that they’re designed to get at the same kind of result — honest communication that can be trusted.

What Does this Mean for Bloggers?

So, I know the general principles of objectivity and transparency seem a little abstract, but they do come up pretty often. Every time there is a discussion about professionalism in writing reviews, whether we should write negative reviews, or book bloggers fit into the broader book reviewing landscape, there’s an underlying current of tension between the idea of professional reviews (which often are cited as being more objective) and “unprofessional” blogger reviews.

At the time I wrote my big paper on this topic, the controversial article about bloggers and book reviews was one called “Will Blogs Save Books?” by Lissa Warren. This topic came up at the 2011 Book Bloggers Conference on a panel about the Gray Areas of Book Blogging. And it keeps coming up, over and over again — should bloggers write objective reviews?

It would probably help to give some ideas about what some people consider “objective” book reviews. In Warren’s article, she suggests:

Book reviewing bloggers need to move away from opinion in favor of judgment. How does the book compare to — and fit in with — the author’s previous work? What’s the book’s place in the genre? The canon? Does the writer succeed in doing what he or she set out to do — meaning, is it the book they meant it to be? Whether it’s the book the blogger wanted it to be is of much less importance to me, frankly.

During the BBC panel, blogger and book critic Bethanne Patrick said objectivity means meeting each book where it is – did the author succeed in writing a book that meets the expectations of the audience or fulfills the purpose of the book? Objectivity means taking books on their own merits.

And although he’s not talking about objective reviews specifically, I think Lev Grossman’s thoughts on what it means to be a professional book reviewer get at the same sort of idea:

I think of the reviewer’s role now as being more about providing context for a book, tracing its lineage in the tradition and locating it in the literary topography of the present, and all that touchy-feely sort of thing. The critics I love these days do something slightly different from what they used to: they don’t just judge, they open up that weird, intense, private dyad that forms between book and reader and let other people inside. They tell the story, the meta-story, of what happened when they opened the book and began to read the story.

All of these ideas about book reviewing — providing context, meeting the book where it is, judging based on what the book’s purpose is — lean back to the idea of objectivity. Of being fair and balanced. Of being unbiased. Of being critical and testing your assumptions. Even though it seems funny to think about book reviews as being objective (since how can a review, an opinion!, be objective?), that’s exactly what professional book critics and people who think about professional reviewing are trying to support.

Why I Support Transparency in Book Blogging (And You Should Too!)

However, I don’t think that being objective necessarily makes sense for all bloggers. Part of what is generally acknowledged as being awesome about blogs is that you get a personal, engaging voice. You get thoughts from a reader, from a person, not just an anonymous critic. Some of my favorite book bloggers make no effort to be objective — many of the other bloggers on BBC’s Grey Areas of Book Blogging panel also said it’s not something they work into their blog writing.

However, there needs to be some ethic in place that guides honest and open communication, whether that communication is in the form of a review, an opinion post, a giveaway, or something else. Instead of objectivity, I suggest transparency. Being transparent is a way for all bloggers — regardless of how objective or not you decide to be — to build trust with all your readers, whether they are long-time subscribers or someone who stumbles across your blog after a Google search. Because,

At the end of the day, trust is the only real currency in the blogosphere, and people who read blogs have the expectation that they’re getting at the truth — in whatever form the truth is to them. And because there is the presumption of truth, readers will often react in an intense fashion to being manipulated, hoodwinked, and otherwise bamboozled.

How Can I Be More Transparent?

Being transparent can cover a lot of ground — everything from how you approach reviews to what information you decide to share about yourself to the decisions you make about whether or not to try and make money from your writing. These are some of my personal and collected tips about how to incorporate transparency into your blogging. I welcome more suggestions, and even disagreement, on these ideas!

Link, link, link! (Or, cite your sources). It’s better to over reference your sources than it is to under reference them. Even if you aren’t quoting a source directly, anything that helped inspire or influence your thoughts on a topic needs to be linked to, somewhere (even if it’s just at the end in a “Sources Referenced” section. It seems to me that most recent plagiarism controversies are a result of poorly citing sources.

Share information about yourself on an About Me page. You don’t have to share everything, but a reader should be able to go to an About Me page on your blog and learn a little bit about you and your perspective on the world.

Disclose your relationships. I think its generally become common practice for bloggers to have some sort of disclosure statement on reviews for books they received for review consideration from publishers. If you don’t do that… you should. (It’s a good transparency practice and it’s required by the FTC Guides mentioned above).

Other disclosures are equally important, but I don’t think get as much attention. If you’re friends with an author, you should disclose that if you decide to review their book. If you’ve been paid to mention something (or, if you get a bonus for doing so… a free book, whatever), you should disclose that. This is a pet peeve of mine; I see bloggers involved with giveaways and promotions ALL THE TIME, and there aren’t always notes about what the blogger gets in return. If a post is sponsored or you get a perk for running it, that should be very, very clear.

Basically, disclose anything that others could perceive as influencing your thoughts on a book (or product, or whatever).

Distinguish original content with paid content. This goes hand in hand with previous suggestion — it should be crystal clear what kind of content a reader is coming to when they arrive at a new post.

Be accountable. Admit your mistakes. Don’t give favored treatment to any special interests, and don’t let outsiders impact your content decisions. Disclose any favors you’ve received from outside sources if you write about them or something you’re connected to. And expose unethical practices (without being vicious) when you discover them. (Thanks to Cyberjournalist.net for these ideas).

Make a note when you change something important in a post. If you put up a post and realize you’ve made a significant mistake, or something isn’t worded the way you’d like, make sure the correction is clear. It’s poor practice to edit a post after it’s live without mentioning you’ve made a change. It makes readers feel like they’ve been tricked, and readers commenting won’t know what “version” of the post other readers are referencing. Use strike-throughs or lines that say “EDITED TO ADD” or something to distinguish changes.

When in doubt, admit what you don’t know. If you remember reading an article that sparked an idea for you, but you can’t find it… just admit that. A simple, “This isn’t originally my idea; I found it online but I didn’t save the link… can anyone help?” could save you worlds of trouble. If someone gets you the link, update the post to add it — problem solved!

Some Final Thoughts

Although a discussion about blogging ethics and practices is complicated, since each blogger maintains a space where they have the freedom to make choices about how they behave in that space, I do think there’s a point at which a more general ethic of honest communication comes into play. Objectivity, which gets mentioned often when comparing bloggers to journalists, may not make sense for every blogger. But transparency, an ethic that developed online, should be part of every blogger’s practices to promote honest and open discussions online.

Sources for More Reading

If you’re interested in this topic, here are some of the books/websites I consulted when I was doing research for my ethics paper that might be of interest:

  • Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks
  • Jane Singer and Cecelia Friend, Online Journalism Ethics
  • A Philosophical Approach to Journalism Ethics, edited by Christopher Meyers
  • The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics, edited by Lee Wilkins and Clifford G. Christians
  • “A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics” from Cyberjounalist.net

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly May 31, 2012 at 10:48 am

I really like this, and I especially think it’s important that as bloggers we constantly reevaluate how transparent we’re being for the sake of our readership (and for ourselves, too). I remember when the FTC guidelines kicked in and how much frustration and confusion surrounded the decision, but now it’s second nature. But there are times I wonder how transparent *I* am being in blogging, especially when it comes to things like disclosing relationships. Because a lot of time I wonder what constitutes a relationship: if we talk regularly on social media? if we email regularly? if we’ve had lunch outside a professional conference? I know where I stand on it, but at times, I get paranoid thinking I should be more liberal in my definition of relationship, even if it doesn’t impact my reviews or posts whatsoever.

Lots of food for thought here. And I’m eager to check out some of the resources you listed, too.

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Kim May 31, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Yes, the FTC Guides thing was a huge thing at the time. But if you ignore the fact that it was paternalistic and didn’t really recognize the relationship bloggers have as reviewers, it was advocating for practices that bloggers SHOULD have been doing anyway.

Personal relationships are really tricky, since as you say it’s easy to have “relationship” with someone online without ever having met them or going through the “normal” stages of developing a friendship. It’s really hard to know. I guess my feeling is that interacting on Twitter is probably ok, but if I’ve met an author in person (not at a book signing, but like for lunch or done an interview for a freelance story), that seems like something to disclose. But year, that’s a tough metric to measure for everyone.

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Kelly May 31, 2012 at 1:47 pm

And I think you hit the nail on the head about why it’s tricky. We KNOW what the lines are with the FTC guidelines, but these sort of things are much more subjective.

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Sarah May 31, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I really, really love this post.

I found myself nodding my head to the point of nearly inducing whiplash about the importance of your about page. This can go a long, long way to letting readers know who you are and what to expect from you. I know people are shy about sharing too much, but it’s better to be out there than inadvertently mislead people. I’d also suggest that a policies page that is regularly reviewed and updated can go a long way to helping in the transparency effort as well. (Uh, I need to review and update mine, now that I think about it.)

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Kim May 31, 2012 at 12:36 pm

That’s a great point, Sarah. Having a reviews policy page is really important, even if it doesn’t seem like people read it very often. Writing one is at least a good exercise in thinking about how you decide which books to accept and what expectations people who send books for review should have of you as a reviewer.

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MotherReader May 31, 2012 at 8:58 pm

I’m one of those who has trouble with the concept of objectivity in book reviewing. I feel like it’s more of a goal, a perfection point to aim for rather than an absolute. It’s why I’ve liked blogging, because it opens up that possibility to share the subjective nature of what we do in a sort of alternative, positive way.

Thanks for the thorough coverage of a tricky topic!

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Kim June 10, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I’ve never really bought the idea that book bloggers should strive for objectivity. I think you can, but I don’t think it’s “required” or even the best ethic to follow. I’m less likely to say that about transparency, which I think there is no excuse to not strive for.

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Jeanne June 3, 2012 at 11:55 am

As you probably know, I’m a champion of the personal in reviews, so I thought I’d already be doing all of the suggestions for transparency– and that’s true, except that sometimes I don’t make an update clear in the post itself, but in the comments. Perhaps I should make sure I’m highlighting the occasional update better. Often my updates are the result of a comment, so my rationale has been that readers don’t understand the issue fully unless they’ve read the comments.

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Kim June 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm

It’s a hard balance with that one. I think the problem comes when people make an update that comes from a comment, but then don’t acknowledge it — leaving the commenters looking weird for commenting on something that no longer exists. However people make changes, I think it just needs to be clear.

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Gail Gauthier June 4, 2012 at 10:29 am

I thought this was a marvelous essay, especially since a month or two ago I read that a publishing company will be distributing arcs to bloggers and rounding up all the reviews at one place. It raises all kinds of questions about transparency, the FTC ruling, and bloggers as independent reviewers. http://scbwi.blogspot.com/2012/05/how-reviews-work-landscape-is-changing.html

I particularly appreciated the material on objectivity in reviewing.

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Kim June 10, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Wow, that’s an interesting program. That does raise some tricky questions, especially as it relates to blogger independence. Personally, I’m not interested in programs that provide a book and EXPECT a review, but that’s a personal choice. I would hope any bloggers participating in a program like that would disclose the various requirements they were expected to meet.

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Amy June 21, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Really love your tips! All fantastic, made for great reading and always good, I find, to think about what I’m doing every now and again and try to make sure I’m where I want to be on these topics :) I could do better, but think I’m still on track – I like being transparent, not as good on the objective part though, but that’s less required at least!

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Kim June 26, 2012 at 7:28 pm

I’m not great at the objective thing as a blogger either… it just seems less important to me. But I try really hard with transparency, although even there I don’t always succeed.

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