Monday, September 1, 2008

Rockaway, Full Disclosure & Wine Blogger Ethics

A battle has been waging across the wine blogosphere, at places like Good Grape, Tom Wark's Fermentation, Steve Heimoff, 1 Wine Dude, Bigger Than Your Head, and elsewhere. It has become a war of allegations and insults with various accusations of ethical violations. I have not replied to any of the other posts concerning these issues. I have taken time to review the matter, to try to get a sense of the underlying issues.

By posting my own thoughts here, I realize that I may too become a target for accusations and insults. But I am hoping that will not become the case. I am hoping that there is still room for rationale discussion of the matter, a more objective review of the matter. I like the people who are involved in the controversy. They are fellow bloggers, some of who I talk to regularly on Twitter. I don't wish to cause any of them any harm.

Briefly, the controversy revolves around the receipt by several bloggers of samples of a new allocated wine, Rockaway Cabernet by Rodney Strong. A condition of receipt of the sample was that the bloggers had to post about the matter within a certain time period. This condition was at the center of the controversy as some felt such a condition may have been an ethical violation. The participating bloggers strongly disagreed, partially countering by stating the condition originated with Jeff of Good Grape and not the winery. You can read the links at the top of this post for further details on this matter.

Do I think the participating bloggers engaged in unethical behavior? I cannot really answer that question properly. The major impediment to my answer is that there is no universal canon of ethics for wine bloggers. There have been numerous discussions on the topic on various blogs plus the Open Wine Consortium but there has yet to be a consensus on the topic. So, the participating bloggers certainly did not violate any universal canon. Without such a universal canon, then on what can you base an accusation of unethical behavior?

Some wine bloggers have their own personal codes of ethics listed on their blogs while other blogs are silent on the issue. So this is also a very gray area as to what is and is not acceptable. But for those who do post their own code, then there is a reference point to assess whether they violated their ethical policy or not. As an example, two of the participating bloggers have their own posted ethical codes. 1 Wine Dude has a posted Code of Ethics and Tim of Wine Cast has a posted Code as well.

1 Wine Dude's code states: "I reserve the right to refuse to review any wine that is sent to me for the purpose of a review on this blog. I may or may not agree to write a post when/if I receive a wine. If a winery or distributor sends me a wine, and I do decide to review it, I review it objectively." The first line would tend to indicate that he would not accept a wine from a winery with a condition that he had to post about it. Though the second line is a bit confusing and could be read to indicate he might agree to a condition that he review a wine. I would tend to believe that the second line is just not written well and that the sentiment in the first line is controlling.

Tim's code states: "I accept wine samples offered by wineries, distributors and retailers but typically do not solicit them directly. This does not mean that I will review all wines submitted on the blog or podcast, but I will taste and offer my notes privately to all submissions. I will continue to disclose the sources of all wines I don’t buy directly in all blog posts and podcasts for complete transparency." There is nothing in that to indicate he would not accept a wine from a winery with a condition that he review it. So, even if in this matter, the winery did make the condition he had to review the wine, there would not be a violation of his personal code of ethics.

Besides personal codes of ethics, there has been some discussion whether blogs should be hekld to ethical standards as any journalist. Some bloggers do want credibility and want to be seen as legitimate media. Some want to be considered journalists. If so, should they then be subject to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics? Should all bloggers be subject to such?

The proper definition of "journalist" is very flexible, and dependent on the context. It may or may not include bloggers. Sometimes a distinction is drawn for "professional" journalists, generally those who make a living from their journalism which would exclude most wine bloggers. Even if a blogger considers themselves to be a journalist, that still does not mean they have agreed to follow the Journalists Code of Ethics. So, we really cannot use this Code to allege that the participating bloggers committed an ethical breach. Though we can at least consider how their actions would be seen through the journalist's prism. This might help us all become better and more ethical wine bloggers.

The Journalist Code of Ethics requires journalists to "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived" as well as to "Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." It is these items that are at the heart of the original issue that led to all the recent controversy. Did the participating bloggers offer full disclosure of their endeavor? Was there complete transparency? Was their a potential conflict of interest, real or perceived? Were they involved in an activity that might compromise their integrity?

As an attorney, my own profession has a substantial code of ethics and it deals with conflicts of interest. I understand that a mere disclosure of potential conflicts is not always sufficient in of itself. Plus, full disclosure is a very important matter. There is also sometimes disagreement over what constitutes a conflict of interest. It is rarely a black and white answer.

I reviewed the original Rockaway posts by the bloggers who participated in this project:

Jeff's initial post did not mention that there was a condition that the participants who received samples had to blog about the project. Joe only mentioned he received a sample of the wine and said nothing about the condition that he had to post. Arturo's post said nothing about the condition that he had to post. Keri only mentioned she received a sample of the wine and said nothing about the condition that she had to post. Sonadora only mentioned she received a sample of the wine and said nothing about the condition that she had to post. Dr. Debs only mentioned she received a sample of the wine and said nothing about the condition that she had to post. Renee only mentioned she received a sample of the wine and said nothing about the condition that she had to post. Tim only mentioned he received a sample of the wine and said nothing about the condition that he had to post.

It could be argued that these initial posts about the Rockaway project failed to provide full disclosure concerning all of the circumstances of the free wine sample. Not one of those posts disclosed the fact that there was a requirement for the participating bloggers to post about the project as a condition of receiving the wine. I believe that the bloggers should have provided that information in their initial reviews and posts and that it was a mistake not to do so.

Some, though not all of the participants, posted again on the matter. Most provided additional information on the project, though I believe such information should have been in their original post.

On 8/20/08, Jeff of Good Grape provided more detailed information on the background of the Rockaway project. He mentioned that each blogger receiving a sample had to post about it. But he did not make clear who had decided on that policy. And based on what was said in the post, a reader might assume assume that the winery was involved in the requirement to post about the wine. Jeff would make two further posts discussing the controversy, as well as providing additional background information on the conditions of the Rockaway project.

On 8/20/08, Renee of Feed Me/ Drink Me posted a second time about the Rockaway but failed to indicate that there was a condition she had to post about it.

On 8/24/08, Dr. Debs of Good Wine Under $20 wrote a post about the background of the Rockaway project. Though she mentioned the condition that she had to post to receive the sample, it was unclear the winery's involvement in that condition. As in Jeff's 8/20 post, a reader might assume the iwinery was involved in the requirement to post.

In 8/27/08, Tim posted an addendum to his original post to indicate on 8/27/08 explaining more about the sample and its condition.

So, even on some subsequent posts, not all of the details were provided by all of the participants. That can be argued as well that there was a lack of full disclosure. I think the fact that there was a requirement to post as a condition of receiving the sample is a materially significant fact that should have been disclosed in the initial reviews posts.

Some of those who initiated the controversy on their blogs have been accused of posting without full knowledge of all the facts. Yet, in the interests of full disclosure, shouldn't all of those materials facts been posted by the participants in the Rockaway project on their blogs? Why should someone have to hunt down the participating parties to garner facts that should have already been presented by the participants? If there was full disclosure, then there would never have been accusations of posting without a full knowldge of the facts.

So, did anyone commit an ethical violation? I really cannot say. But, I do think the bloggers who participated in the Rockaway project should have provided a fuller disclosure of the facts, especially their requirement to post, in their initial posts and reviews. Such a fuller disclosure may have prevented much of the controversy that later erupted. I think this is a lesson to all bloggers to ensure they too engage in full disclosure on all potential conflicts of interest, real or perceived. None of us are perfect and all of us sometimes make mistakes. We just have to learn from our mistakes and move forward.

And keep writing about the wine we love.


Jeff said...


Thanks for a clear-headed recap.

I will definitely grant you that in hindsight I should have introduced the project with ALL the details, instead of doing so on Wednesday, in mid-stream. It was an unconscious decision. My post on Wednesday pre-dated the controversy and was planned, so regarding ethical disclosure I feel covered there, even if others don't quite see it that way.

My lone issue in this entire matter has been that some bloggers who fanned the flames didn't have their material facts correct and in addition to that sought NO ADDITIONAL CLARIFICATION. In doing so, there was a great deal of collateral damage.

No sleight of hand was intended on our part and that little fact-checking bugaboo, or lack thereof by others, is at the crux of the matter.

That said, I'll grant you that some standards for ethical conduct by bloggers will come out of this situation and it will be for the better for all.

Thanks again for the cogent recap.


Joe Roberts, CSW said...

Good recap and an interesting (and thorough!) way to look at the ethics question.

I'd argue that you're not likely to find any CoE that is totally unambiguous. Mine included!

I'd agree that I could've stated more of the conditions up front, but to be honest I thought Jeff's preamble post on the matter was sufficient for my readers.

My wife was listening to the wrap up about this with Tim and Tom W., and she said something that I think is typical of how most of my blog readers would look at this whole affair:

"Not everyone knows the details of a journalists ethics code, not everyone thinks bloggers are journalists, and most of them probably don't think about a silent agreement of trust when reading these posts, anyway."

In other words, if the readers trusted us before this event, they probably still trust us. If they didn't before, they don't now. And the few that might have been on the fence may or may not care.

So, it's an interesting debate, but until our readers really chime in (and *if* they chime in!), I guess we won't know if we handled it in a way that raised their eyebrows or not. It certainly wasn't our intention to do so.


ryan said...

Finally a well written wrap up without flames. Like I have commented on many of the above posts, clarity has been an issue since day one, and this "scandal" will end up leading to better reporting and better blogging as people learn from it. We need these discussions to become better at what we do.