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.