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.