Bloggers learn how to police misconduct by their own

On Blogs

January 07, 2007|By Troy McCullough | Troy McCullough,Sun Columnist

Blogs that practice journalism often fall short of basic journalistic standards.

But the medium as a whole has made great strides recently.

A controversy that bubbled up over the past few weeks encapsulates this struggle and shows the hurdles bloggers face in their quest for legitimacy.

First the bad:

Last month, Microsoft and computer processor company AMD quietly teamed up for a ground-level PR campaign. Their plan was to drum up support for the release of Windows Vista and for AMD processors by giving away high-end laptops to dozens of bloggers to review on their sites.

Whatever the bloggers wrote, the laptops were theirs to keep.

At first, some of the bloggers didn't bother to disclose the fact that the PCs had been given to them. Others saw no problem in receiving an expensive gift from a company who wanted a "review" in return. In essence, their refrain came down to this: Trust us.

"Last time I checked, more than 2,700 people were subscribed to this site's RSS feed and roughly 100,000 visit the site every month," wrote Ed Bott (edbott.com/weblog), one of those who received a free machine. "I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to those people -- to you. I plan to do this for a long time, and my independence isn't for sale."

Bott ultimately decided to send his test model back to Microsoft once he was done reviewing it. Others, however, were more than happy to receive the gift.

"I intend to accept it, open it and drool at it," wrote blogger Long Zheng. "I'm considering giving it away through a contest or charity auction. But I'm also in need of an upgrade, so don't bet on it."

The problem with such attitudes should be self-evident. Zheng and other bloggers may be above Microsoft's influence as they claim. But we, as readers of their blogs, will never know for sure. How much of what they write will be motivated by their enthusiasm for their flashy free hardware? How much will be motivated by their hopes of receiving more gifts in the future?

Bloggers, like mainstream journalists, cannot have it both ways if they aspire to gain the public's trust.

Which leads us to the good:

As news of the giveaway trickled out, fellow bloggers treated their colleagues the same way they've treated journalists caught in similar ethical breaches: They pounced.

"Hard to believe that anyone who claims to be an independent thinker would accept a gift of such high value. I don't know where the line is, but this does cross it," wrote one person on Zheng's blog. "Just because you work hard and don't earn much doesn't mean you should sell out for a new laptop. This isn't ethical."

Members of the influential tech site slashdot.org accused bloggers of accepting bribes. "This is why few rational people take blogging seriously," wrote a commenter.

The backlash was loud enough to force Microsoft to publicly defend its intentions and prompted some bloggers to quickly come to their senses. Several, like Bott, smartly decided to send their computers back or to give them away.

For many, it was a whirlwind lesson in journalism ethics.

And it came largely from bloggers themselves.

Listen to Troy McCullough's podcasts at baltimoresun.com/onblogs.

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