The Federal Trade Commission, it seems, has determined that bloggers aren't journalists, or should at least be treated differently.
The commission, in the process of reexamining the disclosure rules for their truth-in-advertising guides, are now calling out bloggers as a potential issue. The commission says it is looking into the legitimacy of blogger opinion and whether access to review product influences their write ups. They don't, however, seem to be concerned over similar practices in the print and mainstream media.
Instead of relying on specific rules, the FTC's guides use a set of examples to lay out issues that they have identified. In talking about the importance of disclosure of material connections between the endorser and the seller, the guide uses an example aimed directly at online video game journalism:
Example 7: A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or "blog" where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favourable review. The readers of his blog are unlikely to expect that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact would likely materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge.
While this example is talking about free consoles, what about free games or free movies or free books?
Most newspapers allow their critics to go to free screenings of movies so they can write a movie review. Most newspapers, in my experience, also allow critics to receive game code in one form or another and even retain loaner consoles so they can review games. Certainly every major gaming website, from GameSpot to IGN take free copies of games for review.
What's troubling about this FTC example isn't the expectation that the blogger should disclose that they received a free console, but that the rule seems to single out bloggers.
In seeking to delineate between a professional writer and a blogger, the FTC approaches a slippery slope that could very easily end with the government deciding who is and who isn't a journalist.
Equally troubling is the coverage of this issue by the New York Times which seems to almost deliberately not get it. In a Sunday story entitled "When a Blogger Voices Approval, a Sponsor May Be Lurking", the New York Times reports on the issue making it clear that unlike journalists, some bloggers are for sale:
"But unlike postings in most journalism outlets or independent review sites, most companies can be assured that there will not be a negative review: if she does not like a product, she simply does not post anything about it."
I do like some of the ideas spelled out in the document, in particular the notion of advertising and marketing folks not being allowed to flood a message board with false praise for their product without identifying themselves. But who is going to differentiate between "most journalism outlets" and "independent review sites" and bloggers? And how will they do so?
When the government gets in the business of identifying journalists and setting up a separate set of rules for those that don't make the cut, it's more than a little troubling.