There’s an ongoing conversation about wine blogger ethics which is regularly brought up at conferences like VinoCamp or every time a government enacts new policies about blogging. And I just saw some people tweeting about it recently.
Ignore this debate
My very short answer to this issue is that if you are thinking about starting or reviving a blog, I strongly recommend you ignore this debate. Unless you are so big and important that people will scrutinize your every move and question your ethical standards, this debate will only hinder your natural voice. Do what comes naturally. Assuming you’re a good person, you will naturally tend to make good ethical decisions.
There shouldn’t be blogger ethics or wine blogger ethics. There should just be ethics. And the particular medium of blogging has very little to differentiate its ethics from the medium of pen and paper or idle chit chat.
Now, if you don’t like ignoring things, then here’s my long answer! 😀
The importance of blogger ethics / journalistic standards
I hear a lot of people say that wine bloggers should be as objective and transparent as journalists. A lot of people say that the key to a blogger’s success is authenticity or transparency or honesty or a big list of other similar words.
Here’s a recent tweet from Jamie Goode on blogger and journalistic standards. “Bloggers should hold to the same standards that all journalists hold to, or they risk losing their readers’ trust #blogdebate” I’m not picking Jamie for any particular reason. I’ve been meaning to write about this and the tweet reminded me. I just don’t like saying “people say” and “they say” without offering some sort of proof.
Ethics or Practicality
Anyway, PEOPLE SAY, hold yourself to journalistic standards or risk losing your readers’ trust. This is a recurring teleological argument that says one primary reason for bloggers to be ethical is that unethical bloggers lose their readers’ trust.
It’s interesting to note that Jamie’s not using the word ethics. Instead, he talks about journalistic “standards” and he makes this very pragmatic argument. If you don’t mind your standards, you’ll lose your readership. He’s right of course that a blog that earns a large following through charming honesty could lose that following if it suddenly changes its tone. But this assumes the blog already has readers to lose. And what’s the big deal with losing readers anyway? He asserts that bloggers want more readers. And now we’re getting to the real point.
It’s important to note that a lot of these discussions unfold in a room full of people trying to monetize their blogs. If you don’t believe me, listen to the full conversation at VinoCamp Languedoc. A recurring theme in this debate is “how do bloggers make money without compromising their ethics”. I think this is where the conversation takes a bad turn.
In my opinion, the debate has very little to do with ethics as soon as you’re thinking about monetization. I think ethics are based on moral absolutes that have little to do with practical consequences. Once you start talking about money, you want to get pragmatic.
And it’s not bad to think about money. But there’s a fine line between “How do bloggers make money without compromising their ethics” and “Defining blogger ethics to allow them to make money”. So as soon as somebody in this conversation starts to talk about practicality, money, or pragmatism, you should make a mental note that you’re getting farther away from a debate about ethics. (That’s why I like Jamie’s tweet which specifically uses the word standards instead of ethics). All that said, many people disagree with me.
I’m also very wary of people who rely excessively on comparisons between how journalists behave and how bloggers behave. I know this is a useful comparison in some ways. For example, think of your reasoning about whether it’s moral for an investigative journalist to protect a source even if the source might be a bad person. This is a complex moral issue, but you can almost definitely apply your reasoning about journalists to bloggers. Of course, there aren’t many investigative wine bloggers, and most of the comparisons tend to be much much cattier.
People tend to suggest that wine journalists are corrupt or opaque or that their editorial content is heavily influenced by their advertisers. There’s an implication (somtimes unstated, other times quite explicit) that wine bloggers are purer because the medium is so cheap, and bloggers don’t feel the pressing need to let sponsor dictate or influence editorial content. This is a distracting debate. In my opinion, being better than somebody else does not make you ethical. Any argument that relies too heavily on comparisons of this nature is probably a distraction from the true ethical issues.
The true ethical issues
What exactly are the issues of blogger ethics? Earlier, I alluded to the notion that investigative journalists protect their sources. This is a real issue in journalism and if you’re blogging about insider trading or blood diamonds, I think you face the same sort of issues. But if you’re blogging about how wine tastes, the chances are you won’t confront these sorts of ethical issues. What are potential issues then? Here’s a list of arguments that get brought up regularly.
- Lies are bad; truth is good
- If you make money, you cannot be independent or objective
- Good writing is an end in itself
- Irresponsible writing promotes alcohol abuse
- Good writing promotes wine consumption
Lies are bad; truth is good.
I think this falls into the category of things that matter even if you’re not a blogger.
If you make money, you cannot be independent or objective
I always get a bit fed up by this argument. The simple answer is that I am a winemaker blogger. And most wine bloggers are totally cool with winemakers blogging. They even like it. And a winemaker blog is automatically dependent on the fact that the winemaker makes wine (and sells it). So a winemaker blog cannot generally be independent. And some of you know that I actually embrace the subjectivity of writing winemakers. That’s why I wrote a totally subjective book about the Cabardes where I can gush about how much I love my region and how cool it is. So what’s so great about pretending to be objective when talking about a subject like wine that is generally about subjective experience.
Good writing is an end in itself
I wish this came up more. I like this argument. People often make sillier arguments like “We should write well because…. ” and then they say something that sounds important. But you know what? I think we should write well just because. Like we should make wine well just because good wine is awesome. We don’t need to come up with any other justifications!
Good writing promotes wine consumption
Again, I think good writing needs no justification. But a lot of people still cling to this consequential reasoning. I do like the idea that good wine writing can allow wine to reach a greater audience. And I try to do this. But I don’t think it’s an ethical/moral issue.
Irresponsible writing promotes alcohol abuse
I think this is actually sort of preposterous, but it can’t hurt to keep it in mind. I mean nobody is reading my blog and then thinking I SHOULD GO OUT AND GET PLASTERED ON FINE WINE. But who knows? I would feel TERRIBLE if I ever found out that I contributed to a drunk driving accident or domestic abuse. So don’t write things that could promote the abuse of alcohol.
Just blog already
If I actually paid attention to any of these arguments, I might never have started blogging. The fact is that I’m a pretty decent person and when I sit down to blog, I can apply my normal ethical standards to my blogging and that’s just perfect. If you’re Snidely Whiplash
or a Captain Planet villain, maybe you shouldn’t blog. But otherwise, you can probably just use your normal standards and you’ll turn out fine.
This post is about one of the round table discussions from VinoCamp Languedoc in March 2011. I hesitate to label it as “wine blogger ethics” since that’s a big subject. Miss Glouglou proposed and led the roundtable topic, and she had a more specific idea about what we’d discuss. We set out to address the “transmission of information” which sort of bundles up a lot of subjects:
- Marketing material vs. reference material
- Are blogs any different than traditional media?
A lot of people felt strongly that there were deontological moral issues at stake specific to bloggers while other people focused much more on pragmatic issues (credibility, sales, etc.)
My favorite bit is in part 2 around 1:36 where we start talking about giving journalists free bottles of wine. Some very earnest revelations. (FYI: the off screen voice that admits it’s normal wine writers get wine is a professional wine writer.)
There’s also this question about whether bloggers can get into trouble by denouncing or even accidentally insulting people. In retrospect, we could have talked about my extreme positivity on Love That Languedoc. But we talk so much about my website all day, I’m glad there was a session where it came up less.
There’s this idea that keeps coming up about federating talented bloggers into an edited source of information to rival conventional press. It might be tangentially related to the topic just because bloggers wouldn’t need to face unique ethical issues if they operated more like a print magazine. But then there’s also this issue of “why copy print media when it’s on its way downhill?” They might have the ethics figured out, but if you have questions about monetization, there might be better industries to consult.
Anyway, I’m sure I’ll continue to think about this and maybe post more later. For now here are the videos for people who weren’t able to attend.
Beautiful moments (that only come after wine-fueled lunch)
- French produce wine to be criticized by Americans and sold by the English and bought by the Chinese
- Traditional press is Tripoli; bloggers are Bengazi
- Freedom of speech, freedom of regret