My blogging code of ethics

– Posted in: About this site, Blogging Art and Practice
20 comments

badge-largeI’ve been following with interest the debate that Pam at Digging started and which Mr. BrownThumb responded to. When I first started blogging back in 2002, you were lucky to find business people who knew what blogging was, and the idea that they would find enough value in your blogging about their product to give you a free sample was laughable. So when I first started blogging, anything I wrote about I had either purchased myself or checked out of the library. My code of ethics was more instinctive than well thought out. I just imagined myself sitting down in the kitchen with one of my gardening friends, and thought about how I would describe a product to them. In other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

If memory serves, it wasn’t until I joined the Garden Writers Association that I began to get “free” items. I never considered them entirely free; they came with the obligation, I felt, to say something about them. They were, after all, given as part of a marketing campaign. I now had to reconcile the expectations of my readers with the expectations of the companies offering review copies and samples. But my code of ethics remained unexamined and unarticulated–though essentially the same.

Time to write a disclosure policy

I decided it was time to make the way I handle review products and advertising explicit. With the help of the utility at DisclosurePolicy.org, I wrote up my disclosure policy. This website asks you questions, and generates a sample disclosure policy based on your answers to the questions. You can copy the resulting policy straight into a page on your blog, or make more changes first. (The generator is provided free by Izea. Izea owns Pay per Post, which I think is kind of ironic. Also, it was missing radio buttons in Firefox, and couldn’t get all the way to the end, but worked well enough to help me create my own.)

Thought provoking

I wanted to make changes to the policy it generated, lots of changes. Some things didn’t seem to apply and others needed more explanation. It also got me thinking. Had I, in my past book reviews, made clear which books were free review copies from publishers? And while I indicated that I had gotten help from Mike Cherim, I didn’t come right out and say that I published the interview in exchange for that help. Not good enough by the standards of my own spanking new disclosure policy–which is why it’s dated, so you know when it took effect.

Some have suggested that we develop a blogger’s code of ethics for people to subscribe to. Myself, I feel like we have enough “police” around nowadays. Can’t we decide for ourselves what’s right for our blog? If you want to demonstrate that you adhere to professional standards, join a professional organization and state that you adhere to their code of ethics.

Gray areas

Frankly, there are so many gray areas in the blogging landscape that I don’t want to be the one drawing the line in the sand for anyone but myself–and even then I have trouble. Mr. Brown Thumb wonders what is the difference between Pay per Post and discussing a product for which you received a free sample. Not much, to my way of thinking. I investigated Pay per Post when it first came out, and I concluded that gardening products don’t have big advertising budgets, so the pay would be low, and most of the products would not be ones I’d be interested in trying, and I’d have more pressure to write a positive review, and–it just wasn’t me. But I didn’t dismiss it out of hand.

Very rarely am I sent a product out of the blue. When that happens, I don’t feel much obligation to review it. Most of the time I am offered a product to try or a book to review, and I must request it to get it. In that case, I do feel an obligation to review it but I always state in my request that I will be reviewing it as honestly and objectively as I can. Would the payment from a paid blog post (such as Pay Per Post) be greater than the value of the review products I receive? I really don’t know, and since I don’t blog for a living, I don’t worry about that.

Guest post versus paid content

Here’s another gray area: what is the difference between a guest blogger post and being paid to run someone else’s post on your blog (called paid content insertions or pay-to-play)? (Let’s assume that in both cases the relationship is made explicit.) The guest blogger may have been asked, or they may have been the one to suggest it, just as the paying poster would. The biggest difference for me, so far, is that I just wasn’t impressed with the websites of the few that have contacted me. But what if it had been Jeff Gillman, or Susan Wittig Albert, or Botanical Interests seeds? In each of these cases, I received not only free books or seeds, but increased traffic, which conceivably increased my ad revenue for that day. So was I paid, or wasn’t I?

Botanical Seeds sent me 6 seeds packets plus a calendar with the same botanical art as on their seed packets. Let’s say each seed packet is two bucks, that’s twelve dollars. Double that to cover the calendar and shipping and round it up to twenty-five dollars. What if Botanical Interests had come to me and offered to pay me $25 to run a blog post they wrote on how wonderful their seeds were? I would probably have said no. What if they paid me $25 plus let me give away free seeds? Well, that’s pretty much what did happen, isn’t it? Except I wrote about my own experience with their seeds and what I liked about the company, and they didn’t pay me in cash but in free seeds and a calendar (which I like, but wasn’t expecting).

But what if . . . ?

What if they had offered me $250 to run a post they wrote about how seeds get from the field to the store front, and all they wanted in return was one link to their website, incorporated into their byline? I happen to think that would be a very interesting topic for my readers, to learn how seed is harvested, cleaned, counted, and packaged on a commercial scale. I’ve been paid less money than that to write articles for regional publications, and they will pay me to copy and paste it into my blog software, and click on the publish button? This is a hypothetical situation, but one in which I would find it much harder to turn down.

Know yourself and know your worth

If you are contacted by a business, you can be sure they expect to benefit by whatever they are proposing. You have to determine how you would benefit–or be harmed–by what they are proposing. You need to be aware of what your blog is worth in terms of search engine results and traffic generation, and what would adversely affect that worth.

Most importantly, you need to understand why you are blogging. If earning money was the main reason I was blogging, I would be going about it quite differently. On the other hand, if earning money was of no concern at all, I’d pull all my ads in a heartbeat. I don’t feed my family from my blog earnings, but I do finance this site, all my gardening and other leisure expenditures, and my infrequent travels with the income I earn from advertising, writing, and blog consulting. For me, every time I receive an email solicitation I revisit these issues again and re-evaluate my motivations and goals. I value you, my readers, and don’t want to compromise the trust you’ve placed in me.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

invisiblebees February 24, 2009, 11:37 am

Kathy, I always appreciate your posts about the business side of (garden) blogging.

For one week in January this year, I actually did a series of posts about seed production. A good friend of mine manages the Colorado Seed Lab, where they process and evaluate seeds for agriculture, commerce and conservation. It’s my understanding that they do work with seed companies like Botanical Interests — and as routine as the work may seem to some, I found it fascinating.

I usually don’t plug my work so overtly, but in this case, it seemed like you might find the content interesting or valuable.

Kathy Purdy February 24, 2009, 12:07 pm

Alexa, I took a quick look and it does look fascinating. I will read it all through later today.

Saxon Holt February 20, 2009, 2:41 am

I heard there was a discussion about garden blog ethics going on, now I have fallen square into the dilemma. I wanted to drop by to see if I could invite my way in for a blatant plug for my new book, that might be of interest to cold climate gardeners. Now I dare not mention it 🙂

I am stopped in my tracks by this philosophical discussion, and am drawn in. Before dropping by I was simply going to get Kathy’s e-mail, knowing this site through common professional connections, and ask if she knew my book , and if I might add a guest post. I confess I have never visited before; but also confess I rarely visit any of the visitors to my own blog (nameless, of course).

I don’t think such honest inquiries, even behind the scene, need a disclosure. Authors commonly seek likely places to promote their books; publishers, bookstores, and websites look for content. This is the dance of publishing.

I hope Kathy knows me or my book well enough to let me plug it – with a little garden info for the audience I think she has. I certainly can’t assume that she has seen the book and/or has time or interest to review it herself. If she doesn’t take such solicitations, or simply doesn’t think the book would interest her audience, she would say a polite “no thanks” and no harm done, no feelings hurt. I, like her readers, must respect her policy, her ethics, her editorial position, and not give too much thought on if we agree with it or not. We accept it. Her decisions are in the background and we should appreciate her site for what it is – hers.

This is really the great thing about the democratization of the web and blogs, each has its own character, each its own editor. Blogs build its audience around real voices – be they slick, folksy, informative, or whimsical. Whether we find any given blog boring or exciting, it really doesn’t make any difference to the blogger who just keeps putting out what he or she wants to put out there. We all hope to have a decent readership, we hope someone out there will give us some feedback, but that is not why we do it.

I don’t think Kathy or any blogger needs a blatant Disclosure Policy everytime there is a whiff of a promotion, I think readers “get” what blogs are about and what they are evolving to be. I do think it would be advisable that, just like many websites have a Privacy Statement or Terms and Conditions link, blogs could have a Disclosure Policy. Not many folks would care, but just like food labeling, those that do care can find out for themselves.

So Kathy, can I do a guest blog ?

Helen @ Gardening With Confidence February 17, 2009, 10:48 pm

Very interesting thoughts. I review books – some sent to me and others because I really like the book. I read just about any book I can get my hands on. I have NOT reviewed some recent books because while I may have enjoyed the content, the presentation left me cold. One very popular book in particular reminded be of a Nancy Sanatra song – ever leaving a certain octave – even thought the NY Times put it on the best seller lists! In other words, I won’t review it unless I like it. My code of ethics is to be nice. Having said that, I did review some products sent to that I wasn’t enamoured with, and said so. However, I’m the kind of gardener that believes most anything can be done with a pair of clippers and a shovel. My real worries start and end with research. Most of us just look at the pretty pictures in magazines and do not realize ALL the research that goes behind the text. We should. Just because it’s on a blog, doesn’t make it true. While I may be the worst at dotting my “i”s and crossing my “t”s I try to spend the extra effort to verify and try everything I write about.

swimray February 16, 2009, 9:23 am

You post has caused me to think not about my own blog, but about those I visit. I am a person who naturally believes that everyone’s intentions are honorable, unless proven otherwise. Thank you for planting the seed of doubt in my mind 😉

Is a disclosure policy always accurate and honest? Would someone develop a disclosure statement saying “I take bribes,” if that would damage credibility and therefore income?

Kathy Purdy February 17, 2009, 8:34 am

Swimray, I like to believe everyone’s intentions are honorable, too, but the very first email from the nice man in Nigeria who wanted to share his fortune with me opened my eyes to what my brain already knew, if I had consulted it first. As to whether a disclosure policy is always accurate, well, sigh, people can always lie, can’t they? It winds up being a matter of trust, always, in the end. I have seen a lot of blogs that are rather openly and unabashedly “marketing” products and rather successful appearing, at that. But they were not gardening blogs.

Amy Stewart February 13, 2009, 7:24 pm

Interesting debate–I will add to this that almost all book reviews you read in a newspaper or magazine (or hear on the radio, TV, etc) involved a free book provided by the publisher–a “review copy.” Same goes for music reviews. Theater & movie critics almost always get into the performance (or get the DVD) for free. Fashion magazines are almost always reviewing free samples.

Restaurant reviews are one interesting exception–those meals are generally paid by the writer or the publication. I also know of at least one big-city newspaper that won’t review free products in its home & garden section–has to pay for them. But that doesn’t mean a free one wasn’t sent originally.

Kathy Purdy February 17, 2009, 8:42 am

Amy and Jodi, book reviews were one area where I wasn’t sure what kind of disclosure, if any, was necessary. I started out as a hobby blogger and now have one foot planted in the freelance writing market, so I feel like I straddle a range of expectations from my readers. Some may presume everything I review is a review copy, and some may assume I read a borrowed or purchased copy, and some may not know what to think.

Donalyn February 13, 2009, 10:17 am

Good post Kathy – got me thinking about all of it a bit more. I have been given samples to work with and I think I’ve indicated it, though now I will be going back to make sure. I have some developments in the works – samples of products that I would cook with mostly – and I will be thinking even more now how I handle it.

Frances February 11, 2009, 7:33 pm

Hi Kathy, you have made the points that are the questions in many people’s minds about this topic. Having never been offered anything at all, not even a nail file, I can’t say that I am above accepting free stuff. But it seems right that each person make their own code of conduct, just like they do in day to day living.
Frances

jodi (bloomingwriter) February 11, 2009, 3:36 pm

I wonder if this is going on in other areas of interest in the Blogosphere? It’s a puzzlement and a curiosity for sure.

There are three kinds of writers in the garden blogging world as I see it:
1. Professionals who run nurseries, greenhouses, landscaping companies, etc and run blogs either directly about/through their business or separately as a personal interest.
2. Professional journalists, either staffers at a publication (be it newspaper, trade pub, general interest or garden-specific magazine) or freelancers who blog because they’re passionate about gardening and see it as a way of giving back.
3. Other people who also love blogging and gardening and blog for that passion.

I see the first category as promoting themselves and providing an added benefit for customers. The third category make up most of those whose blogs I read faithfully–about 100 of them. If they review a product or book I don’t worry about whether they bought it or got it for free. Maybe I don’t know them like a next door neighbour, but I trust their integrity after reading them for 2-3 years. It’s not an issue for me, and I’m with you and others who figure that most have their own ethics and govern themselves accordingly.

I’m in the middle category. I’m a freelance writer, I write for a variety of publications, both online and print. None of these publications covers my expenses, be it phone calls, books, supplies, etc. Staff writers would get a lot of those things covered, and companies often send items to publications to review, or to do a ‘compare and contrast’ review of three or more hoes, shears, solar lights from different companies. You know what I mean.

As far as reviewing books goes, *and Kathy knows this, so I’m writing it more for the non-journalists who read her blog and comments*: book publishers routinely send out books to reviewers, often unsolicited. The editors at the publications where I do reviews forward me some books that have been sent to them; others I request directly from publishers I’ve had a rapport with for years, and who KNOW I will review whenever possible, both in print and online. Nobody expects these books to be paid for by the journalist; they all have budgets for review copies (unless they’re some small Ma and Pa or Vanity publisher).

I do not write negative book reviews (I review gardening, nature/science, nonfiction on certain topics, and Canadian fiction). Most publications don’t have a lot of room for book reviews, and why would I waste my time and the publication’s valuable space on a book I didn’t like or thought seriously flawed? If I review a book it’s because I like it and find it useful and enjoyable and figure my readership will too. I keep some of the books, donate some to the library system; I just sent about a thousand bucks worth to our local writers federation to be auctioned off for a fundraiser for a writer who has just been diagnosed with ALS. Better that she benefit from those books than I keep them or they moulder away in a library.

I mostly buy my own plants, supplies, etc and can claim them as business expenses because I’m a registered business. Occasionally someone gives me a plant to cold-test up here on my wild hill, or I am asked to participate in a trial. Renee’s Garden Seeds send out a press kit that includes a package of seeds every year; they go to all members of the Garden Writers Association, possibly to other groups too, I don’t know or care. I’ve grown Renee’s seeds, like them and recommend them. Sometimes things get sent to me that I can’t use, won’t review, or otherwise have no way of reviewing; I give those to others. A deer repellent product was sent to me; I don’t have deer issues. I gave it to a nursery operator with deer issues to test out.

The rest of it: the solicitations for links or writing for pay, etc, I don’t bother with. I don’t give my work away to the clients I have and I’m not giving it away to some website (I consider being paid 5 or 10 or 25 bucks per article little more than thievery). What others choose to do is up to them, their situations and their ethics. I’m quite clear about mine and always have been, and you obviously are/have been too.

It’s true the publishing world is changing, and the Net is changing too. I’m glad to see this discussed, but I think the issue of content scrapers/thieves is far more serious than whether someone accepts a hoe or a few packages of seeds. Shutting up now as this is probably longer than your post! 🙂

Pam/Digging February 11, 2009, 12:51 pm

Nicely reasoned, Kathy. I completely agree that it should be up to each blogger to create (or not) a code of ethics they will abide by—whether it’s stated on the blog or not. Talking about this issue out loud will help each of us to make up our own minds about a personal ethic to live by.

Like you, I had not given this issue as much thought as it deserved until I got that solicitation email, which was more blatant than many others I’d received. It is not a black-and-white issue. Like commonweeder and Carol, I have accepted free books for review, making it clear to the publisher that I would write an honest review (if I chose to review it at all; sometimes the book wouldn’t interest me, and I wouldn’t write a review), but not making it clear enough to my readers that my review was unpaid.

That’s what I intend to do better, as you’ve done: clearly disclosing my review policy on my blog, and being sure my readers understand that any positive reviews are freely offered and based on my own personal experience.

Theresa/GardenFreshLiving February 11, 2009, 9:50 am

My head is swirling! So much to think about. You make such wonderful points…And make me look at things from completely new angles.

I have never been “paid” for a post with cash or free stuff. I have been so concerned about it that whenever I do write a review of something I have purchased, I feel compelled to tell my readers that I was NOT paid for the review. I am just telling them about stuff that I love. It is sad that we have to say that, but so many people take “pay” without the disclosure, it makes us all less trusting. This is especially true of relatively new blogs – like mine. I think that once the readers get to know the blogger and that trust is built, it is even more important to keep all the cards on the table with full disclosure. I think your idea of a disclosure policy is a good one. At least then you don’t have to state your “policy” every time you mention how much you love a book or a new garden tool.

commonweeder February 11, 2009, 9:48 am

Kathy, this is a thought provoking post. So far the only ‘swag’ I have gotten is free books for reviewing, but I appreciate all the issues you have brought up. I thought most books that were reviewed were provided by publishers, so it never occurred to me to state that I had been given the book. I have gained so much from your writing on blogging. Thank you for it all.

Nancy Bond February 11, 2009, 9:47 am

Yes, much to think about, but I do agree — everyone should be able to police themselves when blogging. Once you start putting restrictions on what you can write, and how you write it, well…then what’s the point of blogging at all? Nicely presented.

Karen February 10, 2009, 11:58 pm

I think you raise a lot of valid points here. I guess where blogging gets a bad rap is that many journalists have a code of ethics that is spelled out for them by their employer, i.e. you can’t receive gifts/$$ from an outside source and then write about it, whereas this is not the case for us. Of course there are many journos who accept minor swag or are not ethical in various ways, but maybe they can be called on it more or held to a certain standard, whereas in blogland we have to come up with our own ethics, as you have. Personally, I’d like to know before reading a plug whether the writer has been swagged or paid to write the review. I get excited about products or books or whatnot and write about them sometimes, and it never occurred to me to clarify that I have no monetary or other connection with the maker/author. But then again, I don’t aim to make $$ at this at the moment, but would I if I had the chance? Maybe… Anyway, I appreciate your honesty and exposure of this issue!

MrBrownThumb February 10, 2009, 9:37 pm

Kathy, glad to see that you’re acknowledging the gray areas involved in all of this. I think it is cop-out to not at least acknowledge that there isn’t much of a difference in writing about something in exchange for money as opposed to writing about something for links or “samples.”

I’m not going to pretend like I’m on par with a journalist who actually studied the field when I’m just a person with a poor grammar who has access to a blogging platform. I also understand that many journalists and writers don’t live up to the standards that they’re suppose to or we expect them to.

Recently I covered an event for a blog( not related to gardening) and I had access to the room where the press could get wifi, food & drinks. I was surprised by the swag and the writers who were filling their gift bags.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens February 10, 2009, 6:23 pm

Kathy, as usual, you’ve provided a lot to think about here, showing us that once again the world comes in all shades of gray, and very little, upon closer examination is purely black and white.

Like you I have accepted a few products, books, and seeds in exchange for a review, but not before making it clear the reviews would be honest. But I wonder if I made it clear enough that I was given the product specifically to review?

Great post, very thought-provoking.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter February 10, 2009, 4:22 pm

Wow, you’ve put a lot of thought into these issues. I agree that I don’t think we should be setting up some kind of ethics police, but it is good for each blogger to think about these things and to state clearly any potential conflict of interest involved.

WillCoull December 11, 2013, 10:13 am

Hi Kathy,
You have done the write thing in following a code of ethics, especially when it comes to monetizing your blog. It’s so easy to let your blog become over run with ads and you can forget why you started blogging in the first place!