The Responsibilities Of A Food Blogger (Ethics 101)

There are millions of bloggers, and who knows how many of them are focused on food and cooking and restaurants. I haven’t had time to count them, but there are lots of them. Most are like this one — a dozen to a few hundred hits each day, with probably a tenth of those being regular readers and contributors. A few are larger, and even fewer generate some real income from ads.

But in the case of blogs, size really doesn’t matter. There is a minimum standard of behavior to which all bloggers should adhere. And I am not being an original thinker . . . many people, bloggers and readers alike, have suggested this. A set of standards has been codified in a few places, most interestingly here. Most of the blogs I read border on the fanatical when faced with an ethical question, and they are forthright when questioned about flaws in attribution or transparency. That’s one of the pleasures of the blogosphere — feedback from one’s readers is almost instantaneous and often insightful. My ego is bigger than most, but I routinely will think to myself after reading a comment or an e-mail from a reader, “Wow, I never thought of it that way!”

I am not, however, referring to opinions. I own this blog. If you don’t like what I write about your favorite restaurant, then be my guest . . . criticize me in the comments or start your own blog! What I am referring to can be distilled to a simple phrase: “Conflict Of Interest.” I’ll give you a personal example. My wife and I love Blue Smoke. As restaurants go, it’s a pretty solid place, with some damned good choices on the menu. But we love it in part because of a particular bartender and one of the managers. They are both very friendly, excel at their jobs, and are generous with comped food and drinks. Our experience at Blue Smoke is obviously not typical, so I think that it is inappropriate to review the restaurant (although I did take a potshot at it a few years ago, after our first visit). They give me free stuff; I can’t be objective. If I were to write about it, I would feel obligated to reveal this relationship — that’s the only dignified way of dealing with it. But then what would my comments be worth? Not much. Oh, they make a great burger, but pretty much everyone on earth has written that, so I feel comfortable mentioning the burger’s quality as a basis for comparison with that at other restaurants. But that’s about it. And I don’t have delusions of grandeur; The Union Square Hospitality Group doesn’t need me to tout their restaurants. I doubt they know that I write a food blog, and if they know, they certainly don’t care.

There are various corollaries to this prohibition, but I think that it’s pretty clear what is acceptable and what is undignified, sneaky or, in some cases, flat out crooked. Here’s an example from the other end of the curve. There is a well-known local blogger who had some sort of undefined relationship with a local burger joint. He wrote about it on his blog in a laudatory way:

Sliders is a new burger place in Mahwah which opened in August of 2009. While it’s a bit down route 17 near the Suffern NY border, I think that it’s well worth the drive now that they are offering their “Secret Menu” platters which I helped them to create. I really hope you go, because I think the burgers are excellent and they are great people too.

And he closes with:

Especially with the new Bomb platters, Siders is definitely now a “destination” burger joint like White Manna. I’d classify it as a must-go.

Notice the formal relationship? He consulted on the menu. And then he touted the restaurant. When I posted a question on his blog, asking whether he had a financial relationship with the restaurant, he didn’t answer, and most telling, he didn’t post it. This guy is a fairly well-known local blogger, and from what I read in his blog and other sources, he gets free food from at least a few places. Can he be impartial with his judgment? I think not. If he were transparent and shared the specifics with his readers, we could make an informed decision. But everything is carefully clouded, which makes me very, very suspicious. He has said on at least one occasion (in a short video with Anthony Bourdain) that he is a recognizable blogger, that restaurants are aware of his identity. Does he mention in his reviews whether he was recognized and whether he received free stuff? No. And that suggests to me that there is some untoward relationship. Is he being given free stuff in exchange for positive reviews? I don’t know, and because of the lack of information from the blogger himself, I can’t discount the possibility that he is!

People read food blogs for all sorts of reasons, but many people will check a few blog reviews before going to a restaurant. Being able to discern the difference between a blogger who is paid for his review by the restaurant, and another blogger who paid for his own meal and is trying to give an honest assessment of the restaurant is an important part of the decision.

I am not picking on this guy; I chose him because he is the most egregious example in this area. There are certainly many other food bloggers whose grasp of the idea of independence is shaky. But it isn’t a complicated ethical calculation, and it frustrates me that there are bloggers who try to blur the line between blogging and advertising, all for a few burgers and a dessert.

10 Replies to “The Responsibilities Of A Food Blogger (Ethics 101)”

  1. I think you have very much assumed I was actually getting paid or getting consistent comps from Sliders. This is not the case.

    The reality of the situation was thus — the restaurant was producing good food, but was doing extremely badly and was in danger of closing. It was in an awful location in a far-removed town away from the central commerce of Route 17 in Paramus and other well-trafficked areas. When I visited on one occasion, the owner of the restaurant asked me what I could do to help. I told him that in order to attract diners, he’d need to come up with some interesting burgers that differentiated the restaurant from the myriad of others in the area.

    So I offered to “consult” for Sliders. FOR FREE. Because as a food blogger I have an obligation to help out restaurants in need, to improve their exposure, especially if I feel they have merit. This is something newspapers cannot do. They have to be objective, to treat all restaurants equally. I don’t have to live or blog according to these guidelines. -My- guidelines are to do no harm. If a restaurant is awful, I ignore it. If I find it has merit, I provide it coverage, in the hopes that one of the more prominent members of the local media notices it and performs a real review. Sometimes this works, sometimes this fails.

    The only time I ever received “Free Food” from Sliders is when we produced the burgers for the photo shoot. You can call this an undisclosed comp, but the burgers were either going to be thrown in the garbage or they were going to get eaten. I asked the owner what I owed him for lunch, and he told me “Nothing”. So I thanked him and left a nice tip for the waitress. I then published the photos, because I genuinely believed what we created for the restaurant would be worth a diner’s visit after the menu had been tweaked.

    You can call this behavior unethical. I call it my civil responsibility to help restaurants in their most desperate hour.

    My efforts failed. The restaurant still went under in less than a month after I had “consulted” for them. I knew it was a long shot and they were likely to fail anyway. But sometimes you do things because it makes you feel good to help people, even if you know they are going to fail.

    You call this an “Egregious Example” of undisclosed comps. I call this a lot of my free time spent to help a restaurant over $15 in free hamburgers.

  2. I made two points about your blog; you addressed neither of them.

    1. You do not disclose your relationships with restaurants.
    2. You did not post or respond to my question about those relationships.

    Disclosing your relationship with Sliders is enlightening, and you are of course welcome to comment on my blog whenever, or if ever you want, but the information belongs on your blog, not mine. Perhaps if you had disclosed the circumstances of your relationship with Sliders, I, and perhaps some others, would have tried them out, instead of thinking, “gee, that’s Perlow shilling for a few bucks.”

    In another forum, in a response to some criticism, you stated, “… comments on my blog are open if you disagree with anything I write.”
    That is demonstrably false.

    Restating my opinion may be a rhetorical technique, but it doesn’t enlighten or further the discussion.

    I look forward to you revealing exactly what, if anything, you have received from each of the restaurants you have reviewed on your blog. Only when the relationship you have with them is clear to your readers can they trust your opinions.

  3. I would never dine at any place that Mr. Perlow reviews. In fact, I will put them on the “shun list” unless and until he offers full disclosure of all previously discussed establishments. Who knows how many reach-arounds have occurred in exchange for one of his encouraging comments?

  4. A very interesting argument and an important one. I think it’s important that we’re open about our involvement with restaurants, especially if we decide to self-publish a “review” a restaurant. What we say–whether positive or negative–have an effect on that business’s bottom line. Though many people think of restaurants as a fun place to go, they are, in fact, a business.

  5. Thank you so much for this post. This is an issue I’ve been wrestling with for some time on several levels. Whether it be restaurants, or producers, we need to be clear on where we stand in regards to our reletionships which is why to date I’ve never commented on my experiences with restaurants. On the other hand, I have highlighted folk who are bringing unique product to the market. There are decent and good people who are putting insanely good product on the table that I’d like to highlight but have had reservations about doing same. If I should choose to do so, and I’m not so sure at this point if I will, I’m much better prepared for such a venture.

  6. Ah, my young padawan, write to your heart’s content.

    Seriously, the fact that you have considered the relationship between reviewer and supplier probably means that you will be above board. It’s really not that tough, as long as you have some personal integrity. That’s what surprises me when I see clear conflicts. My first question usually is, “what the f@#&. Are you stupid?”

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