Should bloggers have to disclose financial interests in their writing?

posted at 6:20 pm on August 8, 2012 by Dustin Siggins

Yesterday, it was reported that a judge is requiring Google and Oracle to disclose any journalists and bloggers they pay, as a result of a series of intellectual property lawsuits unsuccessfully filed by Oracle. From the article:

In a surprise order, U.S. District Judge William Alsup said “the court is concerned” that Oracle and Google may have hired authors to comment about their ongoing court case. Now, Judge Alsup wants the parties to submit a list of their paid propagandists.

The unusual request comes months after the “World Series” of intellectual property trials in which Oracle unsuccessfully sued Google for billions.

The trial was remarkable not only for the large damage figures but for Oracle’s decision to hire Florian Mueller, a self-described “patent analyst” who also takes money from Microsoft. In his FOSS Patents blog, Mueller wrote a series of one-sided posts over the course of the trial such as “Oracle Java patent rises like Ph0enix from the ashes.”

Despite a lack of legal training, Mueller holds himself out as a patent expert to the media and typically does not disclose that he is paid by the companies he reports on (he disclosed an Oracle relationship briefly at the outset of the trial but did not do so subsequently or to other media). Mueller has also blocked me and other journalists who have questioned his impartiality from viewing his Twitter feed.

I have mixed feelings on this order. My initial reaction was and is to support it, both in this specific case and in general. After all, shouldn’t journalists ethically disclose such things, in order to provide a full picture to the public that is trusting them to provide unbiased information? There is certainly potential for a slippery slope here, but I don’t think this particular step is unreasonable.

On the other hand, I am certain the issue is more complicated than I realize. Rather than speak out of turn, I asked a number of bloggers and journalists for their thoughts on the matter. Below are the (surprisingly varied) opinions I received in response:

Dan Joseph, video journalist with the Media Research Center: “I think this judge made the right decision. Aside from the legal implications, for journalists this is a moral issue. Any journalist who doesn’t reveal that they are financially associated with the person or company that they are reporting on is defying one of the basic rules of journalistic ethics. If I ever did something like that, I’d be so ashamed of myself that I’d probably re-apply to journalism school.”

Tim Devaney, national business reporter at The Washington Times: “It’s a mistake to call these people journalists. Real journalists never accept money from sources to publish a story or opinion. That’s unethical. Any reporter that secretly does that is a disgrace to the profession. Don’t mistake them as a journalist. We don’t want to be associated with them.”

Erick Erickson, Editor of RedState.com: “Yes, if a journalist is getting paid by a company they are covering then they should have to disclose it. We require consultants for candidates to disclose that at RedState. Journalists should have to do the same.”

Jill Stanek, Editor of JillStanek.com: “It’s not honest journalism if the writer doesn’t disclose a paid interest in the topic, product, or company. Honest journalists wouldn’t have to be ordered to make full disclosure.”

Nick R. Brown, technology policy analyst and editor of NickRBrown.com: “The transparency of financial interests for any blogger or journalist is both ethical and admirable, but to be legally binding is another matter entirely. What happens when this slippery slope leads to the blogs of 501(c)(3)’s being legally bound to divulge interests? Conservatives may foam at the mouth to expose organizations like FreePress who hide behind their walls while chiding others on the issue of transparency, but anticipating conservative closets to be full of unicorns and rainbows in comparison to the left would be unwise. Ultimately, this is another example of an overreaching arm of government.”

Adam Brickley, blogger: “I wont speak to the legal aspects, but the use of paid bloggers as sock-puppets is not entirely unheard of. A lot of people try to push info to bloggers the same way they do to traditional media, which is great, but there’s a line that’s crossed when money is involved. Paid bloggers should not be able to market their opinion as independent or objective; that would be like buying ad space in the Washington Post and using it for an article without a disclaimer.”

John Hawkins, Right Wing News: “Disclosure can be a trickier subject than people realize. From my perspective, the only hard and fast rule is that if a company or candidate pays you directly for your services or for consulting, that’s something that has to be disclosed. After all, if a group like Americans for Prosperity pays the travel expenses for bloggers who are attending one of their conferences, do the bloggers need to disclose that later? How about receiving something of value that isn’t money, like links or promotion?

The key thing for readers to remember is that there actually are no hard and fast rules. If you talk to 10 different bloggers, you’ll get 10 different sets of ethical standards. That doesn’t mean anything untoward is going on, but the point is, if someone does step outside of the ethical norms, there’s no “10 Commandments of Blogger Ethics” that anyone can point to in order to prove them wrong.

 


Related Posts:

Breaking on Hot Air

Blowback

Note from Hot Air management: This section is for comments from Hot Air's community of registered readers. Please don't assume that Hot Air management agrees with or otherwise endorses any particular comment just because we let it stand. A reminder: Anyone who fails to comply with our terms of use may lose their posting privilege.

Trackbacks/Pings

Trackback URL

Comments

Only if Emperor Transparency takes the wall down from all his records. Tear down that wall, Mr. Obama!

VorDaj on August 8, 2012 at 6:25 PM

Fail to see the need for this.

It is obvious that all the right wing bloggers are Koch-suckers and all the lefties are Soros-sodomizers.

CorporatePiggy on August 8, 2012 at 6:26 PM

Well, we all know AP gets paid in cat food.
Nothing is sacred around here.

CherryBombsBigBrownBeaver on August 8, 2012 at 6:28 PM

there actually are no hard and fast rules.

No rule of law. Typical of our times, and prophetical.

RushBaby on August 8, 2012 at 6:28 PM

For the Obama administration forced disclosure is target aquisition, just ask the Koch brothers.

James Moriarty on August 8, 2012 at 6:31 PM

The proper question is whether government, and in this specific case an unelected jud…ger, Lawgiver-In-Black (appointed by Clinton) should do the requiring. The answer is a two-word one, consisting of six letters – HELL NO!

Private organizations are free to do as they wish, and non-disclosure in this case is a bad idea.

Steve Eggleston on August 8, 2012 at 6:32 PM

Not just bloggers, didn’t Paul Krugman reveal at one time that Enron paid him $50,000, he wasn’t sure what for, and we learned this many years after it happened?

slickwillie2001 on August 8, 2012 at 6:32 PM

I don’t see how this can possibly be constitutional as a general rule. The ethical thing to do is to disclose any relevant relationships you have when writing a journalistic piece on anything, but the 1st Amendment says nothing about ethics. I think a judge can only do this if it has some bearing on the case before him. Did he give a reason for making this order?

NotCoach on August 8, 2012 at 6:35 PM

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I fail to see anything in that which grants Congress any authority whatsoever to regulate the content of blogs, nor to require bloggers to say anything they don’t wish to.

wildcat72 on August 8, 2012 at 6:39 PM

Only when the reporters in any lib rag newspaper do

Conservative4ev on August 8, 2012 at 6:44 PM

Then the correct thinking bloggers will receive waivers from the Regime.

forest on August 8, 2012 at 6:46 PM

Then the correct thinking bloggers will receive waivers from the Regime.

forest on August 8, 2012 at 6:46 PM

That has been the pattern. Pass harsh, unpopular law, then exempt supporters of the Regime from it’s effects.

IE: Obamacare, which virtually all unions and Obamabundlers have Regime issued “Get out of hell free” cards.

wildcat72 on August 8, 2012 at 6:47 PM

Well, we all know AP gets paid in cat food.
Nothing is sacred around here.

CherryBombsBigBrownBeaver on August 8, 2012 at 6:28 PM

For AP, kitty litter = payola.

Paul-Cincy on August 8, 2012 at 6:52 PM

My feelings… they should, but I wouldn’t go so far as have to.

malclave on August 8, 2012 at 6:54 PM

I have a source who worked with our host bloggers who assures me they are paid directly by Mahmoud Amadinnerjacket.

No, I will not tell you who my source is. They should release their tax returns.

/ Dingy

CorporatePiggy on August 8, 2012 at 6:56 PM

Bloggers still don’t even follow this rule. Kotaku, a video game blog, spent weeks hyping an overpriced, gimmicky laptop computer because of the brand name. It was clear they had been given several test models, which would mean five figures in electronics compensation. They refused to own up to it.

MadisonConservative on August 8, 2012 at 6:58 PM

I’m getting to the point that I agree not only bloggers, but any and all news reporters…TV, magazine, blog, cable…

If these people want to push their personal analysis on an issue like taxes, I want to see theirs. If David Gregory wants 10 years of Romney’s tax returns as a subject, I want to see his too.

If we needed to see George Bush’s college records – applications and grades – when he ran for re-election against Kerry, I want to see Obama’s. Supposedly Bush got into his schools as a legacy and we were supposed to know. OK…. Show me ALL of Obama’s.

zdpl0a on August 8, 2012 at 6:59 PM

I don’t have mixed feelings on the court order. It’s right and proper for a judge to request this if the litigants were paying third persons to influence opinion and those third parties did not divulge that fact.

That’s a whole ‘nother animal from the question you pose and as best as I know it is not required by any government here. Personally, I don’t think they should be required by the governments, though they ought to be required via the social pressure of losing reputation. There are too many laws already and this one has unintended consequences written all over it.

Dusty on August 8, 2012 at 7:00 PM

Should bloggers have to disclose financial interests in their writing?
========

Me thinks not!!

canopfor on August 8, 2012 at 7:00 PM

Oh what fool’s these mortals be… The Media sold it’s soul decades ago and has never looked back nor admitted to having done so. This judge is either naive to the point of being stupider than a bucket of used pig snot or intentionally attempting to perpetrate the deceit that there are still people in the Media can be trusted.

SWalker on August 8, 2012 at 7:01 PM

I think bloggers should be held to the same high ethical standards as members of Congress.

sandbagger on August 8, 2012 at 7:02 PM

This is apples and oranges: the court is demanding that the company disclose those it has paid to print nice things about it. That is entirely different than demanding all bloggers to disclose all their financial interests. Its the same difference between requiring a murder suspect be strip searched and requiring all people be naked in public.

Browncoatone on August 8, 2012 at 7:04 PM

Oh what fool’s these mortals be… The Media sold it’s soul decades ago and has never looked back nor admitted to having done so. This judge is either naive to the point of being stupider than a bucket of used pig snot or intentionally attempting to perpetrate the deceit that there are still people in the Media can be trusted.

SWalker on August 8, 2012 at 7:01 PM

People need to start standing up to judges. When the Constitution says the government doesn’t have the AUTHORITY to regulate or compel speech then that judge doesn’t have that authority either.

Why is it that lawyers NEVER spit quotes from the Constitution back into their faces?

wildcat72 on August 8, 2012 at 7:06 PM

Interesting question. My opinion both as a former blogger and as a follower of blogs in general is that if your receive money or something of real value to support a specific viewpoint in your blog or report you should disclose the vested interest. As far as a legal issue I do think that a case can be made but on a very limited basis.

JKotthoff on August 8, 2012 at 7:09 PM

Did he give a reason for making this order?

[NotCoach on August 8, 2012 at 6:35 PM]

I think the judgment was made, but anyway, per the order:

“Although proceedings in this matter are almost over, they are not fully over yet and, in any event, the disclosure required by this order would be of use on appeal or on any remand to make clear whether any treatise, article, commentary or analysis on the issues posed by this case are possibly influenced by financial relationships to the parties or counsel. Therefore, each side and its counsel shall file …”

Dusty on August 8, 2012 at 7:10 PM

So AP is going to have to officially disclose his ties with cat food, beer and tv dinner producers? Oh, and his coveted free lifetime subscription to the Playboy channel too?

The horror.

BacaDog on August 8, 2012 at 7:11 PM

This is apples and oranges: the court is demanding that the company disclose those it has paid to print nice things about it. That is entirely different than demanding all bloggers to disclose all their financial interests. Its the same difference between requiring a murder suspect be strip searched and requiring all people be naked in public.

Browncoatone on August 8, 2012 at 7:04 PM

The Court has no business seeking that information, especially if it instructed the jurors to avoid outside discussion of the case.

Steve Eggleston on August 8, 2012 at 7:17 PM

The Court has no business seeking that information, especially if it instructed the jurors to avoid outside discussion of the case.

Steve Eggleston on August 8, 2012 at 7:17 PM

Exactly.

Federal judges aren’t supposed to be absolute monarchs.

wildcat72 on August 8, 2012 at 7:19 PM

Should bloggers have to disclose financial interests in their writing?

Yep…And at the TOP of the article, not buried somewhere near the bottom.

Gohawgs on August 8, 2012 at 7:30 PM

The Court has no business seeking that information, especially if it instructed the jurors to avoid outside discussion of the case.

[Steve Eggleston on August 8, 2012 at 7:17 PM]

Was it a jury trial? I don’t know but I don’t think so based on the tenor of this blog post I think it was a judge trial by Alsup.

Here’s a question … does the judge in a trial like this have to be confined only to what is presented at trial in order to be sufficiently knowledgeable of subject matter at hand? Or can he bone up, if you will, outside the courtroom?

Anyway, it might be that he has a feeling that something relied on at trial may not be what it should be.

Dusty on August 8, 2012 at 7:32 PM

Was it a jury trial? I don’t know but I don’t think so based on the tenor of this blog post I think it was a judge trial by Alsup.

Here’s a question … does the judge in a trial like this have to be confined only to what is presented at trial in order to be sufficiently knowledgeable of subject matter at hand? Or can he bone up, if you will, outside the courtroom?

Anyway, it might be that he has a feeling that something relied on at trial may not be what it should be.

Dusty on August 8, 2012 at 7:32 PM

As the Court is not supposed to be able to be influenced by media accounts, if it were a bench trial, again the Court has no business seeking that information.

Steve Eggleston on August 8, 2012 at 7:55 PM

Then the correct thinking bloggers will receive waivers from the Regime.

forest on August 8, 2012 at 6:46 PM

^ Exactly. I would not be surprised to see this happening the same MONTH the law was passed. Big fat “NO!” from me on this.

MelonCollie on August 8, 2012 at 8:16 PM

How does Diane Sawyer and that idiot Brian Ross fit into this?

southsideironworks on August 8, 2012 at 8:31 PM

I write about cars for The Truth About Cars and also edit Cars In Depth and because of cars being loaned for testing and review purposes, travel and lodging expenses to press events paid for by car companies or suppliers, and swag, there’s the chance of getting bought off so I and my editors insist on disclosing all that stuff to readers. If you don’t have credibility with readers, you don’t have anything as a writer.

Just so you know, Jalopnik and the other Gawker sites are moving to sponsored content and even sponsored commenters.

rokemronnie on August 8, 2012 at 9:30 PM

Should bloggers have to disclose financial interests in their writing?

No.

ghostwriter on August 8, 2012 at 9:34 PM

…shouldn’t journalists ethically disclose such things, in order to provide a full picture to the public that is trusting them to provide unbiased information?

No. Only an idiot would trust something that they can’t confirm for themselves.

ghostwriter on August 8, 2012 at 9:37 PM

This isn’t even a close call. I really don’t understand how so many right-wingers could think that this kind of a disclosure requirement is even a little bit of a good idea.

ghostwriter on August 8, 2012 at 9:45 PM

How will the Washington Post handle the big payoff they got from Ford Foundation? The LA Times scored a similar one last year.

slickwillie2001 on August 8, 2012 at 9:46 PM

Morals, Schmorals. Ben Franklin and all the “ye olde “pamphleteers or journalists of the time would have scoffed at the notion of having to disclose anything as a matter of law.

I used to believe in the journalist code, then I realized it was a made up construct to fool the people into thinking news and opinions could be neutral and unbiased. Hogwash. If someone wants to do a disclosure every time, more power to them. If they don’t, well there’s always the old standby “caveat emptor”. But to codify this issue as a matter of law is unnecessary and dare I say unconstitutional. It’s one thing to “abridge ” lies and slander, but on what grounds can Congress or the courts abridge the fact a writer may or may not have been paid to shill for the customer? Nada.

AH_C on August 9, 2012 at 12:23 AM

Ethically, yes of course they should. Duh.

But legally? Once you set up a mechanism for making and enforcing a legal requirement on blogging, bend over and kiss your blog goodbye.

How about we continue to rely on the pack mentality and the ridicule — excuse me, rigorous fact-checking — of your fellow bloggers to enforce community standards. Leave the gubmint out of it.

S. Weasel on August 9, 2012 at 7:04 AM