Is Disclosure Meaningless in the Blogosphere?

Posted on September 16, 2008
Filed Under Unjournalism |

Disclosing conflicts of interest is standard practice for professional journalists. And it has been a real problem for bloggers (amongst other things).

Yet that GigaOm founder Om Malik has become a venture partner at venture capital firm True Ventures has made it quite clear: disclosure is increasingly meaningless in the blogosphere.

As part of its his post on Om’s new job, the New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller spoke with Lee Wilkins, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism who edits the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. He observed that Om’s promise to be disclosure conflicts is almost entirely irrelevant:

Ms. Wilkins added that the remedies for conflict of interest in reporting — disclosing the conflict and avoiding coverage of topics related to it, both of which Mr. Malik is doing — are only partial remedies. Disclosure does not guarantee the absence of conflict of interest, she said, and though Mr. Malik will not cover True Ventures’ portfolio companies, his writers are nonetheless aware that their boss is a partner at the firm.

The truth is that many of the technology blogosphere’s A-listers are in many ways treated (and relied upon) like journalists yet some of them are involved with the industry they cover in a fashion that is quite different from your average technology reporter working at a mainstream media outlet, for instance.

To highlight this point, ask yourself this - when was the last time you read a newspaper article about a new startup written by a journalist who also happened to moonlight as a venture capitalist? And when was the last time you saw a television report on a new startup presented by an anchor who makes angel investments in technology startups on the side?

You probably haven’t for obvious reasons.

Yet many of the technology blogosphere’s biggest personalities - people like Malik Om and Michael Arrington - are themselves “players” in the industry they “report” on.

Which begs the question - now that Om is officially a “venture capitalist,” no matter how “transparent” he is and no matter how well he discloses potential conflicts, can he actually do anything to overcome the fact that his two industry roles are innately conflicted?

I think not.

The reality of the situation is that the blogosphere has to a certain extent created a new breed of conflict of interest, one that in many ways taints everything certain bloggers write and do.

While this is not to say that mainstream journalists are immune to conflicts that involve their personal finances and relationships, most journalists are not obviously not “investors” or industry “players” and usually don’t count those types as “close” friends. Thus, it’s fair to say that the potential conflicts that exist in the blogosphere often run far deeper and occur far more frequently.

Let’s face it: the technology blogosphere is pretty damn chummy these days. I might even suggest that without hesitation.

And while I wouldn’t be so dumb as to pretend that favors aren’t done anywhere else in the world of journalism, the technology blogosphere is increasingly looking like the poster child for a market that is dominated by a few powerful players who put their friends, family and finances before their ethics.

Needless to say, if such blatant disregard for even the illusion of journalistic integrity took place at, say, a newspaper, you can be sure that there would be outrage.

But in the technology blogosphere anything goes. There are no standards. There are no rules. Bloggers call themselves journalists one minute and media entrepreneurs the next. They claim that their conflicts are part of what gives them an edge. But they usually promise to disclose conflicts when they think those conflicts exist. Operative word: think.

Mark my words: in the blogosphere, disclosure is effectively meaningless.

Think about it this way: given that Om is now on the payroll of a VC firm that invests in technology startups, can anything he writes be considered conflict-free? After all, even though he may not write about the specific startups that True Ventures has invested in or even looked at, how can he write about any company or any topic tangentially related to the markets True Ventures invests in while avoiding the potential appearance of a conflict of interest. For instance, True Ventures has invested in BrightRoll, an online video ad network. How can Om write about online advertising or video while maintaining any semblance of journalistic integrity?

The answer is simple in my opinion: he can’t.

I think that perhaps the technology blogosphere’s greatest problem in this area is the fact that many bloggers don’t appear to appreciate the fact that it is not just actual conflicts of interest that matter - the appearance of potential conflicts of interest matter just as much.

Of course, as a former attorney, Michael Arrington certainly knows this, he just clearly doesn’t care. The rest of the A-list bloggers, however, should understand that perception is reality and the reality is that your disclosures are meaningless when the way you operate in the industry creates an almost unlimited number of potential conflicts that can be perceived by others.

At the end of the day, bloggers need to decide who they are: journalists or [insert other profession here]. There’s no middle ground when it comes to credibility.

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3 Responses to “Is Disclosure Meaningless in the Blogosphere?”

  1. Tom on September 16th, 2008 11:25 am

    I definitely don’t think the issue here is disclosure. Reporters don’t even hold themselves to that standard.

    For example, Chris Matthews of NBC is a fervent Democrat having even run for office as the party’s candidate at one point. But he doesn’t disclose that before every show. What he does do though is make an effort to be fair to each side on issues.

    How successful he is at that is obviously up for debate but he does try.
    The issue to me in the blog world is an immaturity about the need for ethical guidelines. Because really, financial conflicts don’t begin to cover all the various prejudices out there.

    One example that springs to mind lately is Duncan Riley’s constant bashing of Techcrunch and everything related to it. In that case there’s no money that changed hands it was simply Mr. Riley and Mr. Arrington having a falling out. It wouldn’t be considered a “conflict” even under a reporter’s standards yet Mr. Riley has written several negative articles about Arrington associates that seem, imho, to be motivated by the dispute.

    That, to me, is the issue. Ethical guidelines force you to try and present a fair case and put the obligation on the writer to rein in all their prejudices even if they aren’t technically considered “conflicts”

    So the question isn’t whether Mr. Malik’s employees know who their boss works for its “do they know their boss to be a person who would want them to write the unvarnished truth regardless of where he works?” I don’t know the answer to that.

    But that, to me, that is where the issue lies.

  2. Guy Rosen on September 17th, 2008 6:34 am

    Most of today’s influential blogs started at a time when you would be laughed at for thinking a blogger is a journalist (or would be asked what on earth a blogger is).

    It’s not that journalists, who grew up with a tradition of disclosure (regardless of their respect for it - the news journalism ecosystem is AWARE of it), went off to try a new online medium.

    It’s that small site owners, most of them more technologists that journalists, decided to start writing on this new medium. The medium grew, their sites gained a following - and a few years later, they and the industry are waking up to realize that they are, in fact, journalists. This is a new breed of journalists and, as Tom said, the blogging world is only just waking up to the need to define the ethical boundaries. It’ll get there.

  3. Drama 2.0 on September 17th, 2008 8:14 am

    Guy: I appreciate the origins of blogging but if you look around, it’s hard not to notice that not only are there few ethical boundaries, there seems to be less and less consensus as to what constitutes “ethical boundaries.”

    Om Malik’s decision to moonlight as a venture capitalist is the perfect example of this.

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