Are bloggers different from journalists? The FTC says yes

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Photo courtesy Rob Lee via Flickr

Photo courtesy Rob Lee via Flickr

I once wrote a newspaper story about mainstream food brands introducing organic versions of their products. When I called a big national ice cream company to ask about their organic offering, they sent me several pints of it packed in dry ice. Did you know that when you attempt to break a pint of ice cream out of dry ice using hot water from the sink in an office kitchenette, the result will be massive billows of steam that can cause a minor panic? Neither did I.

The point is, companies send journalists products for review all the time. But now, the Federal Trade Commission is looking to regulate compensation to bloggers in a way that it has never attempted to regulate journalists’ freebies. As was reported in BusinessWeek last week, the FTC plans to issue new guidelines this summer requiring bloggers to disclose payment from companies whose products they review. It’s not yet clear whether the regulation will only cover cash payment or, say, a free laptop or a golf bag for review. (No clear guidance yet on ice cream either.) “The problem here is that mainstream media journalists receive goods for free on a regular basis, and only rarely is any relationship disclosed,” writes Duncan Riley, a blogger who launched b5media, an expansive and popular blog network.

As Carlo Longino pointed out on Techdirt, online communities are pretty good at sniffing out secret blogger payola. Some bloggers have taken heat for writing sponsored posts even when the sponsorship was made clear. That’s because audiences for both print and online news expect objectivity. But in an era in which the growth in online advertising revenue is slowing, sponsored posts are becoming an attractive option for many bloggers.

At the PRSA Western District Conference in April, Edelman Digital’s Steve Rubel told an audience member who asked about secret paid sponsorships for bloggers to “Run, run fast” from any such deals. Mostly, these arrangements just wind up creating negative media attention. Any such sponsorship or freebie should always be totally transparent and disclosed.

But at the same time, is the FTC creating a double standard between journalists and bloggers? The agency hasn’t revised its advertising guidelines since 1980. Does journalistic training make the staff at a big news organization immune to these issues? Many media outlets have policies requiring reporters and editors to return expensive items, but some do not. If you’re a PR professional who sends out products for review, or a blogger or journalist who receives them, we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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