Earlier this week, Rebecca Buckman of the Wall Street Journal unfairly implied that several bloggers had acted unethically by failing to disclose their financial ties with a commercial concern about which they wrote. As it turns out, the bloggers in question had, in fact, disclosed their relationships with the technology company. It was a non-story, but it made it to print likely because of it’s “raise-the-drawbridge-here-come-the-heathens-again” nature.
But the problem of blog payola is real. It’s not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. I single this example out only because it’s the most recent, not because it turned out to be false. In fact, this instance may be all the more important because the assertion turned out to be false. There have been cases of what can only be called payola in the blogosphere and it’s as wrong here as it is in the corporate media. And, to be fair to Buckman, most of the “coverage” in question was suspiciously breathless in its praise.
David Weinberger writes that the instance Buckman writes about is “very different” from the Armstrong Williams case because “Armstrong Willliams was paid to say good things and didn’t disclose the fact.” In the most recent case, as Weinberger asserts, no one was paid and full disclosures were made. But that’s not the point. In this business, the appearance of a conflict of interest is just as damaging as the real thing.
The solution is simple. I propose the disclosure box be published prominently on the main template of all web publications, independent and corporate. Doc Searls likes the idea of disclosures being integrated with the author’s biography page, but there are three problems with this approach:
- Not all web publications have biography pages
- It’s separate from the subject matter at hand, sometimes even hidden
- The information can’t be gleaned at a glance, in a proper context
Disclosures need to be as transparent and accessible as possible and simply list all appropriate sources of potential conflicts of interest. And not just financial relationships should be reported; list any organization in which you have a stakeholder interest. Put ‘em up there on the home page. In the case of multi-author publications, disclosure boxes should appear with pertinent articles—not buried in the text, but displayed prominently with (but separate from) the article.