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Editor's Note: Vendor-Paid Product Reviews and Journalists vs. Bloggers

Feb 06, 2010, 00:02 (4 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

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by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

In this great Information Age we're drowning in data. How do we know what to believe?

Ever since the US economy turned sour, hordes of people have flocked to blogging as their path to riches. Because there is nothing so fine and empowering, including the Internet, that it cannot be subverted for crass commercial exploitation. And thus we have a growing phenomenon of vendors paying bloggers to review their products.

My first reaction is to recoil in horror. How is that not the most blatant shilling? Why would anyone want to trust such a "review"? But on the other hand, the news and publishing industries have been taking terrific beatings, so more power to anyone who can get paid to write product reviews. But on yet another hand, it seems an obvious conflict of interest. But on still another hand, it's OK if the blogger discloses it, right?

And then what is the difference between a blogger getting paid by the vendor to write a review, and a journalist accepting review units? The usual practice is to receive hardware on loan for review, and to return it after 30 or 60 days. Most vendors don't want to hassle with software returns since those are just boxes of CDs. Most reviewers give away product that vendors don't want back. But there are reporters who are notorious swag hounds, and who exploit vendor relationships for all they can get.

Journalists vs. Bloggers

Which brings us to an interesting question, what is the difference between a real professional journalist and a smelly old blogger? Real professional journalists like to say that there is a substantial difference, that real journalists are specially-trained and have professional ethics and standards. Readers who think that is a bunch of hooey point to the overall awful state of tech reporting, which is uncritical and accepting of the most blatant baloney.

But then there are many excellent journalists who blog. I have never had any special journalist training, so I'm not sure what to call me. (Not late for dinner, at the least.) But I am a decent writer, and have a lot of experience and knowledge in tech. I think I'm pretty up-front with my perspectives and the bases for them. Agree or disagree, I have my opinions and they are my own, not bought and paid for.

There are real differences between journalists and bloggers, though the line is often fuzzy. Reporters have ethical and professional standards, and are accountable to editors and publishers. They usually have training in journalism and publishing, and know how to do research, conduct interviews, access public records, and all kinds of interesting stuff.

Bloggers who do not have journalist experience or training can be thought of as citizen journalists, and the US has a long and honorable tradition of citizen journalists. It's rather like the great divide in tech between the geeks who are passionate about it and are mostly self-taught, vs. the engineers and architects and all those folks with degrees and formal training. Throw in the folks who see a technical degree as the path to pleasant indoor work and a good paycheck, rather than something they're really into, and you end up with these different factions eyeballing each other suspiciously.

Too often we have only a binary option, the choice of either a non-journalist expert writing about their field of expertise, or a non-expert journalist reporting on something they know little about. I'm partial to a third option, which is akin to the journalistic ideal of a disinterested third party, and that is a knowledgable enthusiast who can write clearly and accurately across a range of subjects, and who has the ability to deliver accurate contrast-and-compare.

In the end it seems that what matters the most are a journalist's or blogger's reputation, ability, and quality of work. Doesn't it seem that even in this high-tech era everything comes down to knowing who you can trust?