An ethics code for bloggers: some further thoughts

by Franca on 29 November 2010

Little Red Riding Hood, Killiney, Dublin, Ireland

This post is a bit of a belated response/contribution to this post on Independent Fashion Bloggers, where Jody May Marich of Tickle Me Chic asks ‘Do we need an ethics code for bloggers?’

The main hook for highlighting the need for better ethics regulation is the ludicrous Maura Kelly post, “Should Fatties Get a Room?” article in Marie Claire. The example discussed for what an ethics code might was the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics, which has four main principles:
* Seek truth and report it.
* Minimize harm.
* Act Independently.
* Be Accountable.

My initial reaction to this was ‘Yes! This is a great idea!’. I think ethics is hugely important in any kind of work (really, any kind of work at all) and it is never a waste of time to think through the implications of what you’re doing.

However, as I thought more about it, there were a number of issues I came up against. None of these issues are necessarily reasons not to have an ethics code for bloggers, but they do mean it’s not as straightforward as it might at first appear.

Not all fashion bloggers are the same

This is kind of obvious, but worth pointing out anyway – there is such variation within the blogosphere, or even the fashion/personal style blogosphere. I’m sure there are many bloggers out there who see themselves as journalists and would subscribe to all of the four principles of the journalism code, but then many would not. I personally don’t subscribe to no.1 at all. I don’t do news, I’m not reporting anything. And while I obviously try to make sure all my facts are correct, and I do always try to cover both (or all!) sides of an argument, I’m not after some objective truth. What I write is my point of view. I’m hoping that people will find what I write persuasive, but it’s still just me and my brain. Anyone is welcome to disagree, and as I said before, I actively encourage criticism provided it is respectful.

In researching this, I found a few examples of people attempting to go beyond the four principles of the journalism code, and come up with something more blogger specific. This one by a gaming and technology blogger seems pretty comprehensive, but then because it is so comprehensive there are a few things that won’t be relevant for everyone. There are definitely a couple of things in there I don’t subscribe to.

The boundaries of blogging are fuzzy

One thing that distinguishes blogs from traditional forms of journalism is that most explicitly set out to encourage interaction and discussion through the comments (and often though social networks as well). This is one of the great things about blogging, but brings with it a whole range of challenges. Discussions can get out of hand and with anonymity guaranteed, abusive comments can get thrown about very quickly.

This had led one person to call for a Blogger’s Code of Conduct which is all about commenting, arguing that bloggers should take responsibility not only for what they themselves write, but also for the discussion that goes on on their blogs. I’m not sure what I think of this yet (maybe a topic for another post), but it brings me neatly on to my next point:

Ethical issues are not straightforward

Ethics codes aren’t simple ‘tick a box’ type exercises. What they are is tools to make you think about what you’re doing then taking an informed decision. I think the reason that everyone was so up in arms about the Marie Claire thing was because it was just so completely, ridiculously *wrong* and if anyone had thought about it for two seconds they would have realised it was a *bad* idea. But it’s not always so black and white.

Take the avoidance of harm principle for example. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone that didn’t agree with it, but it all depends on how you define harm. A few people in the IFB discussion said that they generally avoid anything negative at all, and that is certainly one approach. If you don’t say anything negative, noone will ever be upset. I personally think it can be ok to criticise what people have said, as long as you are respectful and keep the criticism to specifics, rather than attacking the person outright. But it’s conceivable that people get upset temporarily by even very respectful criticism. Does that count as harm? Some people would go even further and think that if a person has put their life out there for the world to see, they have to live with people slagging them off. At the end of the day, it’s all about where you, personally, draw the line.

(which makes me think of this quote – a short interlude)

Oscar Wilde on Morality

Codes need enforcing

My final point is that codes work best when they are enforced by some central membership organisation like the journalism one mentioned above, or an employer. You know that when you join or when you work there these are the rules you must follow. And there will probably be some sort of procedure to follow to demonstrate that you have fully considered any ethical issues (for info, at my work we have this checklist – pretty comprehensive, huh?). And then a line manager or an editor checks and satisfies themselves that everything is alright and provides support if not, because ultimately they are responsible (or they should do, anyway).

But blogging isn’t like that. Anyone can be a blogger, and some people blog purely for themselves and never engage with a wider blogging community before they start, and therefore have probably never thought about all this, ever. We’re mainly just people alone in a room, we don’t have editors and bosses to keep us on our toes.

So when we as bloggers subscribe to an ethics code, or make up our own one, it’s really just a statement of intent, not a guarantee we will actually be ethical in practice.

Just to reiterate, I’m not totally opposed to an ethics code or anything, this is just a reminder that it’s not a matter or ‘subscribe and go’. Ethics is complex and can be hard work. It’s important to act in an ethical way, but ultimately everyone needs to decide that they personally define as ethical and to think through their own actions.

Does that make sense? Thoughts?

Little red riding hood photo via here. It’s sort of relevant – the wolf means her harm, you see? Plus, Grimm’s fairytales always have a moral of the story, in this case if you eat little girls, you will get your stomach filled with stones. Oscar Wilde quote thingy via here.

{ 12 comments }

poet November 29, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Good thoughts! I don't really have anything to add… As in all such matters, ensuring that nobody gets harmed while maintaining freedom of expression makes things really really complex.

Greetings,
poet

sacramento November 29, 2010 at 6:34 pm

A blog, as I see it, should be out there to enrich your own life and others, but I agree with giving an opinion rather than being critical. If you do not like a blog, just don´t follow…
It is a very complex subject indeed.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Style Eyes November 29, 2010 at 6:43 pm

I think ethics are hugely important in blogging as in anything else but I do agree that having an ethics code seems to complicate things. In reality the only people who would probably commit to it are those who are blogging in an ethical way already.

Rad_in_Broolyn November 29, 2010 at 7:10 pm

I like your social/cultural criticism posts very much. I also think that bloggers should follow strict codes when it comes to sponsored products, and to engage in full disclosure about everything, beyond the minimal legal rules. To be credible, bloggers should give negative feedback about the products they accept, in addition to the positives, otherwise their readers are left with glowing, bland reviews that don't tell us much. It also looks like a blogger is putting her/his sponsor interests ahead of the relationship with readers. There was a big discussion on a popular blog not long ago when a blogger reviewed a sponsored dress from a prominent e-retailer, and didn't say anything negative (although I wouldn't argue that it was on purpose, but rather the review followed community norms of saying only good things about a product). A lot of the readers called her out on this, asking more specific questions about the quality and construction of the dress, which was pricey. In the end, with the many commenters chiming in on their experiences with this e-retailer, I felt that I had a better understanding about the products.
As for accountability, I think bloggers should hold each other accountable, which is why it's important to be able to share constructive criticism. I care less if someone thinks my outfit is silly, but if they find my opinions to be ignorant and hurtful, I would like to hear about the reasons why.

hillary November 29, 2010 at 9:26 pm

I am so torn on this issue and I am honestly not sure what I think. I started my blog as a way to show my mom stuff. I still write the same kinda of posts I did them just more of them and I still review things like I did when I started but now sometimes I get them for free. But 99% is stuff I buy just like it was when I started. I don't have a fashion blog. I have a blog and sometimes I talk about fashion. I don't really do posts for others but things I am interested in. So yeah I don't know. I do NOT think I am a journalist nor is my blog my job. I don't edit it and I don't obsess over grammatical errors. I write on things I find interesting in an informal manner and if people read AWESOME if not I will still keep doing it as I have for the past 8 years because it is just my BLOG(journal) I do for fun.

Veshoevius November 30, 2010 at 9:25 am

Really interesting post. I am with you on whether it is really an obligation to subscribe to the first code about finding some truth and reporting it. Not everyone is doing this to practice being a journalist.

I don't subscribe to the idea that blogs should be all about comments and interaction with a community though. I think each to their own on that and what works best for the blogger. I've followed some great blogs that went on to become books and they never had comments on or interacted through them with readers but nevertheless the blog was, in some cases a very successful public platform for the blogger's writing.

Franca November 30, 2010 at 9:43 am

V – I didn't mean to suggest that all blogs have to be about interaction, just that many are! I personally prefer these kinds of things, and try (semi-successfully) to provide such a space myself, but again that is just my taste. I absolutely think you can be a blogger and see yourself as a journalist and treat your blog like a magazine.

Veronica Darling... November 30, 2010 at 10:44 am

I love all your thoughts and the comments above, and if I had time I'd write more (I'm mobile, as in the waiting lounge at the airport! Yippee!), but I write my blog with ethics in mind. I believe in balance, fairness etc, and independence of voice, for you, the reader, to know all the info and not be swayed either way.

It's a really broad topic, Franca, so yep, perhaps it is a few posts, with a few angles. Looking forward to reading more!

sartoriography December 2, 2010 at 10:35 pm

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when considering ethics and the wholesale support of an ethical conduct is how massively socially contextual they are. What counts as ethically acceptable changes drastically from one social context to another. Within the blogosphere, as if there were such a thing, there are countless different societies, different groups of people governed by ethics that may or may not overlap. To assume that those people are conscious of those ethics or that they could all be grouped under one code of conduct misses, I think, a rather big aspect of the discussion.

I'm a big believer in constructive criticism and a generally critical approach to life. I think that when someone writes something you don't disagree with, you should be fully able to respond to that. While there are certain general societal standards of politeness (though, like ethics, those vary), I think it's perfectly reasonable for contest and debate to occur. In fact, I think that's how communities get built and why blogs are so interesting- you actually discuss things w people, instead of just writing a comment w an observation about a shirt and going on your way.

To me, part of the allure of blogging and an explanation of its massive growth in the last few years is its absolute lack of oversight. People feel free when they write, they feel open to expressing their opinions without worrying about a grade or approval. Now, granted, that doesn't mean that anyone actually writes on for her/himself and blogging generally assumes an audience to whom you have some obligation. But the notion of a group to oversee blogging conduct- I'm not a fan. If people individually want to agree to uphold some sort of ethical code, cool. Otherwise, that sounds more like censorship than ethics. And censorship is against my ethics. :)

This is a great post and my comments, scattered as they are, don't do it justice. But I'm a fan of most of what you've written and I think the notion of a a "blogger ethic" needs to be more examined. This is a great start!!

Lorena December 3, 2010 at 9:23 pm

In regards to criticism specifically, I have to say that if we have a comment form at the bottom, then you are accepting to receive it. The part that upsets me a little is that it is ok to say what you think, respectfully of course, and out of courtesy I think you should be able to reply- I have gotten some not so nice comments that I would like to reply to and it's either anonymous or does not have a link . Oh well.

MrsBossa December 5, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Excellent post, my dear – I think you convey the complexity of the issue really well. The point you make about 'drawing the line' according to your own sensitivity levels particularly struck a chord with me; I personally haven't ever felt the need to disagree with any fashion bloggers, constructively or otherwise, but I'm bracing myself for the day when others might disagree with me. A lot of the time I take my cue from the tone of the post – I feel that criticism in some contexts is just plain unnecessary.

Anonymous December 19, 2010 at 1:06 am

You have hit the mark. Thought excellent, it agree with you.

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