Sunday, May 15, 2005

What's our responsibility as food bloggers?

This is a topic I have been thinking about for quite a while and I hope that my line of thinking doesn't come across as too disjointed. What do you think our responsibility is, as food bloggers, to our readers and to local restaurants and the like? Do we have an obligation to be anonymous and to disclose any relationships to the organizations we blog about?

I think it all really started when I went to a new local establishment a few months back and the employee who was working there said "Oh, there have been bloggers coming through here all day." How do you know they are bloggers, I asked. He replied that sometimes it's obvious, and sometimes they just outright announce themselves.


I know that we don't all aspire to be like journalists, but I would say that to generalize, many of us are trying to do something that becomes a resource for people.

If we are to become a resource, then do we have an obligation to act more along the lines of journalists, who would stay anonymous and quiet while doing "research"?

For my part, I would hope that any blog review I read of a restaurant or product is based on an unbiased enough experience that I, as a complete stranger to the product, can go in and get a pretty close replication of the experience that I read about in a review. I also believe that food blog reviews on the whole won't be taken seriously by the food industry until we hash out these issues among ourselves.

Is this something that any of the rest of you have thought about? Under what circumstances do you actually announce yourself to a business as a blogger? And what about receiving free things - do you accept them or turn them down? Do you disclose relationships in blog reviews? What conclusions have you reached for your blog?


paul said...

I think some honest disclosure within the review is all that's needed. Something like "They recognized me as the famous blogger that I am, and brought me an extra basket of breadsticks".

Seriously, I have lots to say on this, since there are really two sides of responsibility - not just to your readers, but there's the responsibility not to look for special treatment just because you have a slightly louder "word of mouth" effect than others.

Blogging ethics is a well-discussed topic, although I'm glad to finally see it applied to food blogging. I recommend Rebecca Blood's 2002 article on weblog ethics. There's a weblog ethics weblog for further research.

I'll post again, once I get my points on this subject a little more condensed, but bascially - if your aim is to help a business out for some reason that will benefit you, rather than to just tell people about great food, then you're marketing, not blogging, and you should say so.

McAuliflower said...

Lol! Have you read Ruth Reichel's new book about her process for going to restaurants she would critic in the Times? It's a fun read. The chapters tell the story of the visits to the restaurant (often in disguise to remember the commoners plight)and then close with the actual review.

As far as that goes with our own blogs, I would hope that one wouldn't be duplicituous in regards to establishments they vouch for, but there's human nature for you... you never know.

Would a restaurant give a rip if one announced themselves to be a blogger? Until we can demonstrate blogger-power to the restaurant-industry, I don't think they'll pay much heed.

fwiw, I've never announced my blogging intentions to a place I'm visiting. I still feel too embarassed to whip out my camera to take shots in a restaurant, let alone tell them I blog (to only have them ask what the heck a blog is and why should they care).

Reid said...

Hi Sam,

I just had to comment on this as I almost exclusive post reviews of dining establishments on my site. At no time have I ever mentioned to a restaurant, drive-inn, etc. that I was doing a review. That said, I've never felt uncomfortable whipping out my camera to take pictures. In Hawaii, there are loads of Japanese tourists that do that sort of stuff, so most places don't mind.

Rachael said...

Am I naïve? I have a hard time believing blogs are driving traffic to (or from) places in any sort of volume that would cause notice (Gigantic readership blogs excluded) and that anyone overtly blogging is getting more than a free dessert (at best) for their efforts. Am I wrong? Do you ever get feedback from readers or restaurant owners? Im super curious.

As for telling people if you are promoting something, the whole point of good marketing is that they try to make it sound natural, so they will never tell. Which means you always should, to separate yourself from that.

paul said...

I don't think many establishment owners in my town are familiar with the word "blog", and if they were, I don't think they'd know to view us any differently than any other customer, except that we might have a slightly louder "word of mouth". San Francisco might be different, having a seriously competitive restaurant market, a large tech-saavy population and lots and lots of bloggers.

One example we can take is the guidelines many food forums set up for people posting on their sites - disclose and disclaim - even if you're just friends of the owners. (A side note: when groups from eGullet, Chowhound (and in my town LTHforum) go to places, they do announce to themselves ahead of time - but for a different reason - not because they're going to write about it, but because they want special off-the-menu things because they'll enjoy it (and pay for it)).

That said, I have a confession - I have a restaurant client, who I built a site for, and not only that, these people are long time friends. I've mentioned the place a few times (twice, breifly), mainly to let people know about good food, but secondarily to use my very high google popularity to get them a higher result. I've never done a full-out review, I've never had ads on my site, and I'm not lying about the good things I've said. Was that dishonest? Is this a conflict of interest? Should I be censured?

Culinary Fool said...

I don't announce OR hide the fact that I'm a blogger, but mostly it doesn't come up. I don't consider myself a reviewer, per se. *Real* reviewers go back to places several times and normally under different circumstances (at lunch, dinner, with friends, on their own, etc) to get a well rounded review. AND they don't take out notebooks (or cameras) and take notes while they are eating, which I often do. I've had one or two people ask me about that but mostly no one really notices - there are a thousand reasons someone might be making notes - maybe it's just a To Do list for the weekend.

I consider what I do more like a conversation with friends - you'd talk about your experience but wouldn't necessarily expect them to have the same viewpoint. With that in mind, if you were talking to friends you would probably tell them if you had any sort of relationship with the place you were talking about. In fact you might brag about it, a little. :-)

As Rachel said, I don't think that we really have the power to affect the numbers and I don't even want to. At the most, I hope that people will discover places they didn't know about or hadn't thought about by reading about them in my blog. Or maybe they know what might be especially good at a place. Or where to go for a certain type of experience.

Again, this is something I do for friends - people often ask me stuff like, "Where should I take my mom for a good brunch?" or "Where's a quiet spot in West Seattle?" and I would give them some ideas. Over time, I hope my blog does the same for a wider audience.

I guess my primary goal is to help my "friends", not to drive/drive away business to/from a place.

drbiggles said...

Hey Jen,

Dang, responsibility? Whadja do and bring that up for? I started Meathenge to get away from my daily grind!
That being said, in general there are as many different food blogs as their are authors. From pastry chefs, restaurant owners, lookatwhatiatelastnight bloggers, meat eaters, staunch vegetarians, wine lovers and many more. I would think how you interract & write would vary depending on your scope. For me, I don't set out to do restaurant reviews. I will write about good lunches I have during the week and that's about it.
As far as announcing myself? I used to, it was fun. My line was to walk in and introduce myself as "I'm Biggles, I'm from The Internet." But food blogging has exploded and I don't want to be labeled as "Another Food Blogger". I've got other things I'm up to.
Free stuff? Hmmm, well my definition of "free stuff" would be that there was no exchange, a one sided deal. If someone offers me something due to a trickle of traffic that Meathenge has sent there way, I take it. SNAP.
I can't speak for everyone, but I'll bet most of not nearly all food bloggers are NOT getting a regular paycheck from their time & effort. I sure as heck ain't and I put up a Paypal Donate Button. I'm in over 2k worth of camera/lighting equipment, plus a second computer and my personal time. If someone offers me a treat due to my investment and hard work? You bet, makes me feel as though I'm doing something worth while.
I think that's about it. ?

Jennifer Maiser said...

Rachael - I completely understand what you are saying and don't think you're being naive. I don't necessarily think that a lot of people randomly read my blog posts and decide to go to a particular place ... but I will tell you when it does matter: search engine hits.

For example, I received a specific complaint this weekend. About a year ago, I was upset with a local organization and posted about the reason. I was asked this weekend, via a source one removed from the organization, to please write something nice about the organization. They had fixed the issue I had complained about, but the Google hit still reminded everyone about it and there was no follow up.

Personally, I think they are right and I should have posted a follow up. But it reminded me of the staying power of posts via search engines.

Some of my top hits right now are for people looking for a specific restaurant. And often, my posts come up before a restaurant. That's when I think the restaurants notice.

Sam said...

I have quite some thoughts & info on this subject including chefs offering me free meals at nationally quite well known and fancy places.
I will write and tell you all about it when the day job lets me come up for air.

Owen said...

All very interesting and a LOT depends on what 'media-level' of blogger you are. As an ex-journalist and reviewer of TONS of computer hardware and software, there are pretty well understood guidelines in place. They provide you stuff. You write about it and keep it long enough to deal with any follow-up issues. Then you return it. Except when the cost of return and/or point doesn't exist (software and dinky bits of hardware). Then you donate it with the caveat that there is no technical support that goes with what you just donated and that it cannot be resold.

Net result - big loss on warehousing piles of crap.

So, on to food blogs. In my case (ugly jealousy moment ahead) even though I have been doing this for 3 years or so, making me an old hand, young whippersnappers like Sam come along and already have more than twenty times my traffic levels. I couldn't influence public opinion if I tried. Sam, on the other hand probably can. So she does have some responsibility to think about it.

But there is an easy bottom-line answer. It is to be transparent. Let everyone know what you are doing all the time.

I'm feeling the ethical pressure about the book I published. I want to promote and sell it but I don't want to be seen as just marketing stuff. On the other hand, the book is a clear, pure and simple set of food blog entries - edited only for length. And the authors are getting over twice industry standard royalties PLUS referall fees for sales they generate directly - that is completely above and beyond normal publishing practices. So why SHOULDN'T we promote it? AND I would LOVE to have it become an annual series growing to include all food bloggers. I see it as a service to those who would love a 'best of food blogs' reference.

I can't think of a reason why this is a bad idea but I worry that it bothers other people.

Sam said...

I so delighted at being called a young whippersnapper, because that is what I usually call all those kids at work.

I do take my responsibility seriously, Owen, the thought of influence does scare me, esp as my readership has increased so much in just a few months. At all times I try to be absolutely fair, honest and truthful. Maybe i should have a declaration of intent somewhere on my blog.

I am not sure i did the right thing by advertising shuna's cooking class even though it is my house.I was all excited about it without pausing to think she is making money from it and I don't want my blog to be commercial. (I am not making a penny btw, infact the opposite cos i will be providing refreshment - but I am not complaining I offered and am happy to do it)

Owen said...

Sam - see I would NOT regard that as a problem for several reasons.

1) You ARE taking the class - and not only are you allowed to talk about that, you SHOULD talk about it.

2) This is a GOOD thing for people to know about.

3) You aren't getting anything financially out of this

4) There is nothing to stop you saying afterward that it was bad if it was (not likely). In fact, you readers are going to expect a report.

5) There is lots of journalistic stuff about church and state that covers all this but it is really easy. If you write about something on which you are making money you HAVE to disclose it. That's all. Nothing to stop you writing about it. Nothing to stop you whooping it up even. Just tell the truth about your involvement.

This has actually helped me realise that I am OK about my book. I have never hidden my involvement nor who the other bloggers are. It is a great book. I am proud of it (especially now I have copies). I am especially proud of how I decided that the publishing company would treat authors fairly and how I have achieved that.

Rachael said...

A few follow up thoughts.

1 – (Life @ 30) Thank you. I do see what you mean about search engine hits. I looked at my site and the review I did of a particular restaurant does bring a lot of people searching for info on them. Writing about X-Rated Fusion Liquor also made me popular in the search engines…only not with the crowd I am hoping to attract…

2 – (Owen) I do think you should promote the hell out of your book with no reservations. Though your saying you give rewards to involved bloggers who sell it does bias me on who I would make a purchase from (meaning, I would be inclined to make a purchase from you directly, versus them, since you are the one who put money into it in the first place, even though its super nice you are offering that incentive to them)

3 – (Sam) From my point of view, the reviews you do are more recognized as being non-partisan/journalistic, and from what I have seen, you do everything right by that. So good job! As for promoting the class…I know since I teach classes that I would be overwhelmed with excitement at that sort of PR. You did it for only the right reasons and it will be a smash hit, so I don’t think there is anything wrong at all. Its all about one-good-turn and all that…plus, its not like you are promoting something just for a kick-back…

4 - (Culinary Fool) I guess the upshot here is that some bloggers take this all very seriously, and some are just indulging a passion for food. Since I fall in with the latter, I will most likely never announce I am blogging and will never expect anything for free.

Amy Sherman said...

I've thought a lot about this subject and I believe it is up to individuals to decide and not a communal "bloggers" issue. Bloggers are so diverse--some are professional journalists, some are representing companies, some are citizen-bloggers. The same standards should not apply to each. Our real responsibility is to ourselves and our own ethics.

I never announce myself and have yet to be recognized (except when I wore a badge a the Fancy Food Show!). I love the fact that blogging gives me entree into the food world (sorry for the bad pun). I am happy to make friends with people I meet and interview and yet I believe my ethics are intact.

As for accepting free stuff, I mainly get review copies of cookbooks and trust me, if the book sucks, I'm not reviewing it, whether I paid for the book or not. The only free meals I've gotten were in a few instancess when I was reviewing for other publications, and until those publications start paying for expenses I have no qualms about it. They were all restaurants where I had eaten meals that I paid for in the past.

That said, I agree, transparency is always a good thing.

Culinary Fool said...

I think we have a bit of a misunderstanding here. I take what I write very seriously. However, I don't believe the reviews I do (or that I see most bloggers do) can really be considered on the same level as a professional restaurant critic.

Not because we don't know enough, not because we don't write well enough or aren't objective enough - none of those things. It's because I mostly see bloggers do "reviews" after one experience.

And maybe that's where our obligation is - to make sure people understand what our depth of research was. (Relationships with owners/comped items/special invitations/preparations not withstanding.) If you write a "review" about a place you visited once it really can't be considered complete, IMHO. If you write about it as your experience at a particular time, anything is fair game - it was your experience at that time.

People are pretty smart. If you give them the proper context for your comments, they'll be able to make a decision that's right for them. For instance, if you write about one bad experience you had at a place I wanted to try I may choose to keep it in mind, try the place anyway and then if I see the same thing choose not to go back. Maybe, if your experience was really bad, I may not go at all but I'm more likely to give the place the benefit of the doubt, since you wrote about one experience. However, if a critic writes about a series of bad experiences, even if it's a place I had been planning to try, I may not go in the first place. After all, I can never make it to all the places I'd like to try.

Some may see this as splitting hairs but I don't. I think there is a BIG difference between a single experience and actual research.

~ B

Rachael said...

OH HEAVENS. I did NOT mean to imply you dont take what you write seriously, I just meant to distinguish what I see as a difference between Hard Journalism reviews and lighter ones. I am SO sorry. (And sorry to have gone off track...)

Jennifer Maiser said...

Culinary Fool - I think you make a really good point about the one review vs. several reviews subject.

I keep thinking of a 7x7 article from a few months back where those in the industry were asked how seriously they take bloggers. Most said not seriously at all ... and this is probably one of the reasons why. For better or for worse.

drbiggles said...

Hmmm, well as far as responsibility for posting, flogging or promoting a product, place or person, I find it depends upon who or what it is. You'll probably find that Meathenge promotes an awful lot of things. It's because I think they're special in one way or another and deserve the recognition and/or business. Fatted Calf gets a lot of air time because there's a synergism going on there, probably pretty evident. I post Shuna's classes because of who Shuna is. I asked her permission and all went well. It's a party and everyone should be invited, that's my groove. If you suck, hit the road. Ain't no room at the inn pal.


Cate said...

I think it a bit odd for someone to walk into a restaurant and announce themselves a blogger, no? Like someone else mentioned, I think everyone is going to come at this from different angles, and therefore have different agendas, opinions, etc., all right for their own reasons. I go out to eat with family and friends and when I do, I blog about it. Simple as that. If someone likes what I've said enough to seek out the restaurant, the dish, etc., then great. That's where it stops for me. No announcing myself in a restaurant -- and geesh, why would they care? Like a food critic would be, no need to call extra attention to myself or dining companions. That said, I take careful responsibility for my words and if there's something negative to report, will word it carefully.

McAuliflower said...

I'm home sick today and just caught a foodtv show called What's Hot What's Cool that featured a close in on a person, named Andrea Strong talking about some food trend. The cool thing was her tag line labeled her as a Food Blogger!

I didn't think Food Network would be helping pave the way for food blogger recognition but this was the first tv mention of blogging I've seen.

Amy Sherman said...

I wish she could have come up with a unique tagline instead of stealing mine...

Owen said...

mcauliflower (still the best name): Pascale at C'est Moi Qui L'ai Fait in France got about 5 minutes on French National TV a couple of months back - they had the video stream up for about a week and I watched it. Very cool - they filmed her putting the blog together while they talked in the background about food blogging in general - it was part of a slightly larger piece on blogging as a whole.

sarah said...

wow - so interesting to read through everyon'e responses!

for me, i find it hard to think that i have a responsibility, because i feel weird assuming that there are people reading what i write. sure, i realize it's on the web and anyone can stop by, but i still can't help but feel a little arrogant if i think that i have "an audience."

as far as being anonymous to restaurants, etc...i do think it's weird to go into a restaurant and say, "i'm a blogger - i am going to write about your food." i take pictures, too...lots of them, and i'm lucky that i'm asian - i just look like a crazy asian tourist in l.a.! lol!

it's not necessary to be unbiased when writing about a restaurant - unbiased restaurant reviews can be found, like other have said, in the newspaper. part of the beauty of a blog is that it IS biased. it IS your opinion, and it's just about your experience. readers can find the bloggers whom they think have similar tastes and go with that. it's not fun to read real restaurant reviews that say, the steak was hm, nicely cooked medium-rare. it's more fun to read that someone loooooooved the medium rare steak because she has a thing for mooing meat. does that make sense?