The Ethics of Reviewing

- - Ethics

Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer has a nice piece about the ethics of reviewing products (here).

I’ve been wondering—are the ethical requirements really the same for a personal blog as they are for a magazine? I’ve accepted a camera on extended loan lately for the the first time in my career, too. That is something that is common enough industry-wide, but that I’ve never done before myself. A new thing.

And then there are junkets. Junkets are a common perk in business. Once, when I was an editor, I was offered a particularly dazzling one. To publicize a name-change, a manufacturer offered a flight to Paris for a big dinner at a fancy restaurant—I forget which one, now, but my memory is that the name was world-famous—and then on to a Mediterranean country for a corporate presentation followed by three days at an idyllic resort. Boy, was I ever tempted. I really, really wanted to go. Turned it down.

I count the ethical lapse in product reviews as one of the many small cuts that contribute to the overall demise of magazines as authoritative, trusted, must-read sources of information. The rise of product reviews as a great source of advertising income for magazines ultimately led to the advertisers controlling the outcome of the reviews (along with all kinds of content you wouldn’t suspect they would have influence over). It’s a double edged sword because you either keep the advertising and lose reader trust or you lose the advertising and keep your readers happy. Everyone has tried to have it both ways for too long.

It would be sad to see the only place where unvarnished reviews exist is at the online point of sale because you really have to wade through a lot of comments from people with different agendas and of course the PR and marketing are working the back channels here as well. Ideally I think that just as Mike Johnston has done here trusted reviewers will emerge as they post and continually update a code of ethics of some sort and give disclosures within the reviews they write.

There Are 12 Comments On This Article.

  1. From Poynter Institute:

    BE HONEST
    How honest are you? It is difficult to communicate with and to trust someone with whom you do not naturally connect with. Be clear about what you mean, sincere about what you say and reflective about your timing so that you avoid misunderstanding and developed trusting relationships.

    There is a wonderful piece in September’s Outside Magazine by a guy named Haggart that has a bit of cross-over here.

    As long you are coming from a base of respect and integrity as a coach and teacher then the path is set.

    If your loaner camera is less than you would like, then you owe it the manufacture to help make it better, you owe it to your readers to keep them informed.

    The honesty and respect you build on your blog will have a direct impact to your other endeavors, ; articles, etc.

  2. Very true words and long overdue. It’s worse than this example though, “journalists” in main-stream media spew out PR releases verbatim and have the audacity to call it reporting and news. Just about everything we read or hear from the media these days has been bought and paid for by some party or another. It’s a crying shame. No wonder so many people credit Jon Stewart as being their primary news source – at least when he bullshits you, you’re in on the gag.

  3. i’ve noticed that a generation that has grown up on fluffy reviews and payola is so accustomed to seeing it, that they have internalized the ethos that the advertiser is always right, you’ll see people throwing in the kind of content you’d expect a p.r. firm to generate, completely unprompted, and with no compensation. i remember it used to be a question of whether you would compromise to work for company x. and now that’s just the goal right out of the gate. there’s not even a moment’s hesitation.

    • Donnar Party

      @scott, yes indeed. Everyone’s goal is to sell out, which leads to the dearth of quality content.

  4. Something that I have always been aware of is car reviewers. Manufacturers get journalists out on a lovely jolly to the south of France or Spain for a few days of relaxing and driving their new car. Maybe times have changed a little but in the past, who was going to badmouth a car that gave them such reward.

  5. I love the comments and the article. To me IMHO there are very few that work with the ethic of trust and respect. I say, if you can’t speak the truth don’t speak, that includes the work you do.

    I use to trust review artices in the past when I was just starting out in photgraphy but now I take everything with a shaker of salt. I find very few that I think are objective in what they do and haven’t soldout. Just MHO

  6. EVERYTHING we read? EVERYONE we hear from? ALL reviews are bought and sold? EVERYONE’S goal is to sell out?

    Maybe I’m reading the wrong (or, actually right) magazines, but it was always (needlessly) beaten into me by my mentors in the magazine business to make sure all reviews and content came from an honest and pure place. And, while it’s true we reviewed products that we actually thought were worthwhile passing on to the readers, we’d absolutely call a spade a spade.

    What I’m saying, is, I don’t think there are as many “bought and sold” reviews as you think there are. That’s the old model of magazine business and I think lots of reputable, mainstream titles are honest and “clean” about their reviews.

    Sure, there are still many working in that old-guy way, but I’d bet that those are the same magazines that are generally becoming irrelevant very quickly and are probably already dead, but they just don’t know it yet…

  7. I certainly agree with the proposition that selling out to advertisers probably hastened the demise of a number of print publications. I’m less convinced that a return to ethical product reviews (that is assuming a big leap of faith that there once was a time when product reviews were ethical) would be a saving grace for magazines. It wouldn’t hurt, but I’m not convinced it would be salvation.

    1. Product reviews are mostly used as decision support. While I don’t doubt there are some people (lets call them morons) who make purchase decisions based solely on stuff they read; I believe most people do some form of independent analysis and consider an aggregate of third party reviews as supporting evidence to justify the decision they’ve already made. While doing the best, most ethical, most exhaustive product review will undoubtedly be appreciated, I’m not convinced it will translate into a substantial increase in paid subscriptions.

    2. When it comes to cameras (most consumer electronics really) exhaustive product reviews aren’t really practical. Digital cameras have, at best, a 24-month life cycle. In most cases it’s more like 12-18 months with the majority of sales coming within the first six months of availability. Unless your review is coincident with FRS, it’s probably not going to get that much attention. That means you really have to get a pre-production unit, which means cozying up to the vendors. Then there is a question of what have you really reviewed? — something with all the buttons in the same place as the production model. Most pre-production versions of electronics tend to be buggy with performance that is not always consistent with the production version.

    3. Then there is expertise. Who’s opinion would you trust more: a professional photographer who shot the previous version of a specific camera for the past two years; or a guy who has touched every digital camera on the market for a couple of days? Most product reviewers fit in to the latter category. While their impressions might be interesting, a real photographer who uses a specific product every day would have more credibility.

    4. Lastly on the subject of press/analyst junkets, I don’t think they are as evil as Mike Johnson implies. Vendor briefings can be an opportunity to bring together a collection of company executives that would be difficult to assemble for a road-trip kind of briefing tour. And getting them out of a corporate setting is beneficial for a number of reasons. Sure there is an obvious attempt to influence people with a nice setting and good food. But how many people would show up for a briefing scheduled in a Holiday Inn in Detroit in January? A nice venue is part of the package. I do think both sides (vendors and publications) should take steps to avoid obvious bribery. For instance publications should pay for their own travel to the event and forbid writers from accepting anything beyond basic give-aways (a golf shirt, a bag, etc. — stuff that costs less than $100). If you are accepting free cameras, lenses, lighting gear, etc. you’ve been bought. The same rules should hold for the vendors — briefings are about relationship building not buying positive coverage.

  8. Having written reviews here and there I’ve definitely felt that pressure. My response was to simply decline writing them. Now I just express my opinions on products based on experience and attempt to be fair about it. I solicit reviews from friends and colleagues whom I trust.

    I haven’t placed any trust in published reviews (for any product or service) in years which is too bad since I know there are some that are objective… but how can one be sure?

    Another problem with reviews may not even be the honesty or motivation of the reviewer but also their experience with the product category and their own subjective slant on what makes a good product. Everyone’s priorities are different.

    • @Alex Gauthier,
      You might be asking too much of a review – film critics are followed because their followers realize that they agree with them more than they don’t. It’s really that simple. You’re a smart guy with an opinion…you’ll quickly realize, one way or another, if you enjoy and believe a review or not. If you want cold, hard facts and nothing but, pick up a copy of Consumer Reports. If you want to be entertained and informed, pick up a free issue of VICE.