i-a08038da13378bf73a89c9a9735339dc-Graeme Thickins.jpg
Perhaps I was being a bit purposefully provocative in my question to you — “Should bloggers avoid conflicts of interest as journalists do?” — but it didn’t take long for readers to correct my thinking. While journalists do have a code of ethics they are supposed to follow, no such code exists for bloggers, which is just fine for many of you.

Your basic premise is that bloggers must operate with transparency to gain credibility or readers will go elsewhere in the click of a mouse. As for mainstream journalists, many of you don’t trust that they operate ethically and avoid conflicts, and don’t think they are transparent enough with their biases. Graeme Thickins (pictured above), who blogs at Tech – Surf – Blog and is a writer, consultant and marketing exec, quickly sets me straight:

You’re way too kind to traditional media here…Bloggers are largely leading the way in disclosing conflicts, perhaps because they know online readers can simply click away to another, more transparent blogger in the blink of an eye….whereas traditional journalists have had monopolies in, say, local markets (e.g., daily newspapers) for far too long. It’s the bloggers who are keeping the journalists honest here, not the other way around.

Howard Owens, who has a long history working in mainstream media (and blogging), also believed more in the transparency of bloggers than of the average journalist.

“As long as I’ve been blogging, I have been struck by the ethos of serious bloggers that the key to ethics is transparency and honesty, not a phony stance of objectivity,” Owens wrote. “That has long been considered the key differentiation between bloggers and MSM [mainstream media] reporters. As blogging exploded, we’ve seen a rise of bloggers who maybe [are] less aware of the need for transparency and honesty; but the key advantage of a typical blog is that it is one person with a clear personal agenda.”

Steven Streight, a web analyst who blogs at Vaspers the Grate (subhead: “Destroying the MSM”), counters my logic by saying that journalism lost its way in the recent past:

“Journalism is not known for universal high ethics, but they used to be good at keeping the interest and loyal readership of an audience,” he wrote. “That has now changed. I don’t think the question is: ‘How will the blogosphere benefit from professional mainstream journalists?’ The question is: ‘How will the blogosphere continue to destroy the very fabric and foundation of mainstream journalism?’ And: ‘How do we keep the creepy agendas and bias of mainstream journalism OUT of the beloved blogosphere?’”

Still, there was a voice in the blog wilderness who was ready to speak out against problems of conflict of interest on blogs, and who would defend the mainstream media’s ethics. Aron Pilhofer, CAR (computer-assisted reporting) editor at the New York Times, thinks the question of avoiding conflicts is a key one in the blogosphere that isn’t getting enough attention.

“I’d say the question posed is up to the individual blogger to answer, much as it is often up to the individual journalist,” Pilhofer wrote. “Companies (like mine [the NY Times]) have policies, but often it is up to me to make judgment calls on the fly when a source wants to pay your lunch tab, or when someone offers information you know was acquired in a less-than-legal manner. It ultimately comes down to credibility. Bloggers have to decide whether they want to be taken seriously by readers as information brokers, or dismissed as shills. It’s their choice. Personally, I think this is THE single biggest issue no one in the blogosphere is really talking about.”

I contacted Pilhofer by email, and found that he doesn’t take a typical us vs. them view of bloggers. Instead, he feels that bloggers and journalists are in the same boat together.

“I am one of those print folks (there are some) who view bloggers as colleagues as well as competitors,” he told me. “We share a more symbiotic relationship than most of us probably realize. Fact is, bloggers can move faster than we can, they can go places and say things we can’t and tease out stories we’re ignoring. Most importantly, bloggers can put information ‘out there,’ so to speak — an incredibly important role (see Mark Foley).

“But that’s also an awful lot of responsibility, and this is where the ethics issues come into play for me. When I see some of the ethical lapses we’ve seen lately in the blogging world — things that would be firing offenses in my world — I don’t see a problem for bloggers. I see a problem for journalism, because like it or not we’re in the same credibility-based business here. It reflects on all of us.”

How You Are Transparent

So for a blogger, what’s the best advice for being transparent and avoiding conflicts of interest? Some of you gave some great tips on what you’ve done. Mike Dunn, a blogger who’s also a VP at Hearst Interactive Media, takes a common sense approach to conflicts, as he has a few, due to his long and varied career in the media.

“It’s all about disclosure and the realization that whatever you post (or comment on) can be read by anybody and could be available forever,” Dunn wrote. “So each time you post, ask yourself — should I be simply listening and learning or do I actually have something to add to the conversation and can I stand behind it even if I have to defend my motivations for posting?

“My blog is personal and has nothing to do with my employer but I do post about the industry I work in and sometimes about companies I know or used to work for. So I always open a sensitive post with a disclosure on how the post topic relates to me if needed…I also make sure to list my affiliations such as the boards I serve on and when pertinent the stocks I own…This disclosure philosophy works for me, but of course if I think something will be a conflict of interest if I make a public statement about it (even with a disclosure) — simple, I just don’t make the statement.”

That last point is worth repeating: If Dunn thinks there’s a real tough conflict of interest, he just won’t make the statement at all. That’s something I think few bloggers practice currently, but more should.

Blogger Ged Carroll has a similar policy, and is perhaps even more strict about avoiding conflicts because he is in public relations.

“For me personally, being a PR person means that I have to be seen to be above board so I have a personally imposed policy of not talking about current clients or my current employer,” Carroll wrote. “This meant that I couldn’t respond to some things that a prominent blogger said about my employer a few months ago. Also the first time I mention an ex-client I try to disclose the past link. You can find in the ‘About’ section of my blog a pretty comprehensive list of current and former clients that I have worked on (however briefly).”

What it comes down to is this. Try to be transparent as possible, reveal your conflicts and try not to put yourself in a situation that would hurt your credibility (for instance, giving your husband’s restaurant a rave review). And in a worst-case scenario, if the conflict of interest is impossible to avoid, just don’t write anything about that subject.

What do you think? What other advice would you give a blogger on avoiding conflicts of interest? Do you feel there’s anything to be learned from MSM ethics or have they been fatally compromised? Share your thoughts in the comments below.