On Maintaining Journalistic Integrity

When you open up a newspaper (digital or print) to read the stories of the day, you expect the reporter to be as impartial as possible. They are there to present you with the facts, giving you an opportunity to see both sides of the story and to formulate your own opinion on the issues. However, what if the opinion of the writer is being skewed or influenced by the source of the story? What if that is affecting what is supposed to be the unbiased nature of good journalism?

Promoting for Free Stuff

Prior to the rise of the Internet and social media, the average person didn’t have much of a platform to reach a wider audience. This was restricted to a relatively small number of “legitimate” journalists, many of whom would have gone through years of education, training and work experience to improve their craft. But things are different now.

Anyone with a smartphone, tablet or computer can start up a Tumblr blog or post “breaking news” on Twitter. This “citizen journalism” has become something of a double-edged sword (see Jeff Cutler’s post). There are now far more people on the web who are willing to “leverage” their audience in exchange for free stuff. They’ll share, tweet and like things for a chance to win something. And then you have Klout perks. People will always write positively of products that they get for free, particularly if they think it will lead to more free things.

Conflicts of Interest

Let’s say you have a cooking website where you talk about different kitchen appliances, recipes and cooking techniques. Your audience comes to trust your opinion on these matters, so when you say that you really recommend a particular food processor, they are far more inclined to buy it. And then, let’s say that a manufacturer of food processors approaches you to advertise on your site. This is great news, because you can make some more money and the ad will be relevant to your audience.

However, what happens when you actually try out one of their food processors and realize that it is of inferior quality. Do you slam the product like how you normally would and risk losing an advertiser? Or do you speak positively of the product, even if you don’t believe it? You can see how this can create conflicts of interest quite easily. For my part, even if it’s a paid review, I try my best to remain objective, but fair. If there really is something I don’t like, I’ll say it, but I’ll usually follow up with how it could improve.

Keeping the Flow of Editorial Samples

Two years ago, I wrote about how product reviews work for freelance writers. Much of what I said then still holds true today. It’s true that I receive editorial samples from various manufacturers and PR companies so that I can review their products. It’s also true that I try to maintain a positive relationship with these contacts, so that I can continue to receive said products to review.

However, that does not mean that I am willing to sacrifice my journalistic integrity to keep that flow of editorial samples going. As above, if there really is something about a product that I feel potential buyers would want to know, I’ll say it. If the PR agency or manufacturer responds negatively to my constructive criticism, then they’re not really understanding the value of having professional reviews of their products. Yes, it’s about exposure, but it’s also about feedback for how the product can be improved.

The Positive Obligation?

Journalists big and small may, at some point, feel obligated to speak highly of this company or that. For instance, you may know that my recent trip to E3 was mostly covered by NVIDIA (they paid for the flight and hotel). The obligation was that we had to attend their press event and they wanted us to visit their booth at the show (be sure to watch our E3 2013 video coverage). Given this, you’d think that NVIDIA would expect us to speak very positively of their announcements and products.

This may have been true to an extent, but it didn’t stop me from asking the NVIDIA representative (on camera) about some of the challenges the upcoming SHIELD product could face regarding latency and bandwidth concerns. Again, I did my best to be fair and objective. And I think all parties involved were pleased with how that turned out, including our audience.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to stay objective as a journalist and a writer, but we also have to remember that product reviews and opinion pieces are inherently not objective. They’re incredibly subjective. The key is making sure that the opinions expressed are based solely on the experience with the product (or service) and not swayed by irrelevant outside factors like concerns over advertisers and maintaining positive relationships.