Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The "Pro-am" Journalist: Is it Safe to Eat?

Here's a quiz for all your bloggers and/or journalists out there: what do many bloggers feel entitled to that would also make most true journalists lose their job? Answer: publicly begging for payola. See exhibit A (the following stream of tweets from one weight-loss blogger)

On one hand, I can understand why this blogger was upset. They were essentially told they'd be getting something in exchange for a blog post advertising GNC products only to have GNC later back out. So what happened? Probably only the folks at GNC know, but since this is my blog, I'd be willing to venture a guess.

The upset blogger claims she wants to "review" GNC's products. Reviews are trusted to be as free from bias as possible - something that gives an accurate appraisal of something to help inform consumers of whether they should buy/eat/wear/travel to something. So, good reviews are obviously something a company likes to see written about their products. But what happens when those reviews or the reviewer is less than credible?

A lot of smart PR and marketing strategists will tell you that, given the savvy of the modern media consumer, the last thing you want is to have reviews look unauthentic. Some strategists would even suggest planting a poor review amongst a sea of positive reviews just to make those positive reviews appear more credible. So, knowing that those same savvy consumers might notice that this one particular "reviewer" only reviews what she gets for free - and assuming GNC knows that fake reviews can be more detrimental than beneficial - it's quite possible GNC said "thanks, but no thanks. We'll get our good reviews the old-fashioned way - with a solid product." Which led to this...

Of course, the whole thing could just be disorganization on GNC's part, but that's not the point. The point is, this blogger is unwittingly telling everyone that follows them on Twitter "hey, my blog is for sale! These reviews are bought and paid for and, let's face it, are really just more annoying advertising!"

To be fair, journalists are sent fee product for review on a constant basis. That said, the very thought of so publicly complaining about not getting free merchandise in exchange for a review would be abhorrent to any properly-trained journalist. And that's just it - the vast majority of everything published on line has no legitimate training behind it.

Check out this story from Ad Age on "Pro-am" journalists. If you don't have an account or don't want to log in, here's the paragraph that matters most from that piece. It's a quote from former New York Observer Editor Peter Kaplan:

"The relationship between the reporter and the editor is the one safeguard when it comes to the business of truth telling." In assessing the recent rise of so many content farms (large masses of content gleaned on the cheap from untrained citizen journalists), Mr. Kaplan referenced Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," and perhaps minted a new quote for future observers: "What these sites are producing," he started before a long pause: "You know what it is? It's like sending unchecked meats out to the public."

That's precisely what the angry GNC blogger is providing - unchecked meats that might not be safe to eat. The blogger means well and could have written an honest review. But we don't know. And she represents an ever-growing demographic of "Pro-am" journalists with little or no training and just as much credibility.

None of this post is meant to dissuade anyone from serving as a citizen journalist. Instead, it's meant as a reminder of how important it is to get our information from credible, reliable, cross-checked sources. Our democracy depends on an informed public and that depends on reliable, well-trained journalists - not bloggers who throw temper tantrums every time a bone gets pulled from their teeth.


  1. I would not see a blogger who is paid or compensated with free merchandise to be any more credible than a purchased ad on TV or radio.

  2. Thanks for the comment Kyle!

    In my opinion, you're exactly right. Problem is, we know advertisements on TV are just that ...advertisements. If the angry blogger above would have been given her free product, would she have said so in her blog? Some responsible bloggers do, but others I know for a fact do not.

    To me, it all reiterates the importance of getting information from as many different sources as possible before making any decisions about what to do or how to think. This is especially important now that we have so many sources to choose from.