More on ethics, criticism and paying the bills, adding the FTC this time

Rhonda Shearer of called earlier this week in response to my previous post on who pays for things reviewed by critics to remind me of the Federal Trade Commission’s rules on the subject.

I wrote about these rules in 2009, and should have acknowledged them in my piece earlier this week. In summary: The FTC said that online writers who accept freebies or payment from businesses they review must disclose that in their posts. The rule does not apply to those employed by “old media” news organizations or freelancers working on assignment for them.

Advertisers and bloggers aren’t the only people responding to these rules. I’ve heard from my theme park website correspondents that Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida has asked online reporters attending its press events to sign a statement acknowledging that they will mention in their posts that they attended the event at the park’s invitation, in order to protect Busch Gardens’ corporate parent, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, from action under the FTC rules.

As much as I’m uncomfortable with the idea of agreeing upfront to include something in coverage as a condition of access, I absolutely see Busch Gardens’ point. Any organization inviting online reporters to cover an event or product has to take steps to protect itself in this legal environment. Personally, I think it’s a good idea to note when a review of coverage is of a press event, or a sample prepared for and sent directly to the press. Such products and events are’t always representative of what a consumer might buy off the shelf or get when he or she visits under “normal” operation. That’s why I’ve permitted my correspondents to sign such agreements, and gone ahead with such disclosures.

The FTC has been taking action on its rules, reaching settlements with some advertisers. The FTC seems especially to be focusing on retailers using online affiliate marketing, where publications are paid a commission on each sale to its readers.

In order to comply with FTC rules, an online publisher must note when it links to a product or service from which it will get a commission on a sale. Again, I think that’s good practice. In my experience, such notes actually have increased sales, and commissions. Loyal readers want to help their favorite websites, and such notes encourage them to click through and do their shopping there, since they know that part of their purchases will go to support a site that they believe in. In this case, disclosure not only helps keep readers informed, it pays off for the publisher.

Publishers must take care when disclosing affiliate links, however. Do not forget that if you are also using Google’s AdSense program, Google prohibits its AdSense publishers from explicitly drawing attention to and encouraging links on its ads “in order to avoid potential inflation of advertiser costs,” as Google’s suggested disclaimer says.

Obviously, a disclaimer on affiliate links draws attention to them. So it’s probably best not to run affiliate links in rotation with Google ads in the same place on your page templates, unless you can modify the template to show the disclaimer only when an affiliate link runs in that place, and not when a Google ad shows there.

And, for the record, I still think it stinks that online publishers are subject to these rules and newspaper and broadcast reporters and critics are not. Disclosure’s always a service to traders, provided that it’s done in an elegant way that informs the reader without bogging down the narrative of a piece. (Oh, to live in a world where we leave the writing to the writers, and not to the lawyers.)

So if you’re a reviewing a movie during a free screening at the studio lot, let us know that. If you’re sailing on a media-only cruise, don’t allow readers to believe that it was a regular, public sailing. If you’re reviewing a hotel on the newspaper’s dime, print that the newspaper paid for the trip. Be explicit. It shouldn’t matter whether you work for a newspaper, a website, another company or yourself. If you didn’t pay out of your own pocket for whatever you are reviewing, you should tell your readers who did.

Let’s count this as my vote to change this rule of journalism ethics. Instead of demanding “that the employer always pays” (because it doesn’t), let’s instead demand that “when the writer doesn’t pay, we tell the reader who did.”

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. James Kaplan says:

    Perhaps a tax break for journalists paying their own way while reporting might somewhat relieve the public and government from finding bias in a critic’s work?