My Take: Professionalism and Ethics in Blogging

Shortly after I started working at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January, I found out about plans to organize a Book Blogger Convention around the same time as BookExpo America, and I contacted the organizers and offered to take part in any panels they’d like to have me on. Eventually, we decided on a solo presentation about “professionalism and ethics in blogging,” with at least some attention paid somewhere in that hour to best practices for blogger/publisher relations. The idea was that it would be cool to have somebody from the industry side sharing that perspective; as it happened, HMH had discontinued my position four days before my speech—but it didn’t really matter what job I had the day I spoke to that audience. I’d already built up the perspective, and I was ready to share it.

You should watch all 26 minutes for the full argument as I made it that day, but here’s the gist: Paid book critics at newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets who attacked bloggers for being “unprofessional” missed the point; if bloggers failed to live up to a certain “professional” standard, it was mainly because that standard was defined by people who were doing one type of writing about books to champion that way of writing about books. Bloggers not only reaffirmed that there were other ways of writing about books, they proved that a substantial audience existed for that writing—proved it to such an extent, in fact, that just about every major print news publication with an online presence and a books section has launched its own blog, conceding the viability (we won’t say superiority) of the format. That’s what I mean when I say “the war between book critics and bloggers is over, [and] the bloggers won.”

From there, I talked about what “professionalism” might mean for book bloggers, not in the sense of “getting paid for what you do” but “living up to a certain standard of excellence.” This section draws heavily on a section from Seth Godin’s new book, Linchpin, on the qualities of the indispensable professional—I tweaked the qualities Seth identified and used them to ask questions specific to the world of book blogging, questions aimed at getting people to think about what they intend to accomplish and how to determine whether they’re succeeding.

The second half of my presentation was about ethics, and just as I argued that bloggers shouldn’t be judged by somebody else’s standard of professionalism, they shouldn’t be compelled to accept somebody else’s code of ethics in order to be deemed trustworthy. I’m not a big fan of declaring adherence to a code of ethics as a shortcut to credibility; I side with Jesus when he said, “Do not swear at all… simply let your ‘Yes’ be Yes, and your ‘No,’ No.” When you get right down to it, I don’t much care for the very concept of “professional codes of ethics,” not just because of the whole shortcut thing (and this is another argument from Linchpin which I’m afraid I didn’t do the best job I could’ve done of explaining in the presentation) but also because I am a heart a moral particularist, believing that ethical decisions are rooted in our consideration of the situations we confront throughout our lives rather than the sets of codified rules we’re told constitute “good ethics,” rules presented to us as universal principles which are in fact contingent on any number of historical, social, or cultural factors.

(One person, hearing about this secondhand on Twitter, accused me of espousing “situational ethics,” but as I understand the term to be used in this derisive context, she wasn’t referring to the Christian philosopher Joseph Fletcher, who argued, as Wikipedia puts it, “the established moral laws might need to be put on hold in order to achieve the greater amount of love.” She likely meant the term in its corrupted form which equates situational ethics with rationalization of self-interest. That is not what moral particularism advocates; quoting Wikipedia again, “particularism… asserts that there are no overriding principles that are applicable in every case, or that can be abstracted to apply to every case.” Instead of principles, we inherit a set of guidelines which we can use in serious contemplation of each moral situation in which we find ourselves.)

I spoke about two broad situations—the controversy over whether book bloggers should disclose the sources of the books they write about, and the act of asking other people to write for your blog for free—and discussed the variety of ethical responses we could make to those situations. That takes us to the end of the video; then I opened the floor to audience questions, and for the next half-hour, we talked about things like what to do if somebody offers you a press pass, how to handle the FTC’s requirement to disclose relationships with e-commerce outlets, and the best way to open the lines of communication between bloggers and publishers. I ended by reminding the bloggers in the audience that what they were doing was inspiring to many readers, and that spreading a love of reading was a truly worthwhile endeavor, and I asked them to keep striving towards excellence.

(I realize after watching the video how raw my public speaking is in some ways; man, I really need to invest in a clicker, or a headset microphone.)

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve seen some positive responses to the presentation online, and I thank you all for those, but I also noticed a sharply critical response which claims that “what he said was basically we should just go on trust and that there are no set rules,” adding, “I very much disagree with this as I think we need to set baselines and build trust.” I hope you’ll recognize, from my comments above, that “setting baselines,” in the form of professional code of ethics which one must affirm in order to obtain credibility or, in many cases, accreditation, is to my mind the complete opposite of “building trust;” rather, it’s an operational shortcut aimed at avoiding the long, hard work of gaining trust in favor of instant acceptance. If you want to be seen as trustworthy, be trustworthy; if you can do that, and maintain a consistent standard of excellence, people will notice. That’s not “going on trust,” it’s building trust by making an ongoing commitment to yourself and your readers, even in the absence of set rules for whatever comes down the pike.

Amy had some other questions I should answer as long as I’m here: “Will all bloggers get a bad name because a few don’t follow the rules? Did by his saying there can be exceptions to the ‘never sell ARC’s rule’ condone the fact that people are now illegally selling them on eBay?” The first question is irrelevant: Did all baseball players get a bad name because of A-Rod’s unsportsmanlike conduct? Did all memoirists get a bad name because of what Margaret B. Jones did? Did all stand-up comedians get a bad name because of Michael Richards? And so on. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure the second question operates from a false assumption: I Am Not A Lawyer™, but absent the lack of a specific, signed agreement between a publisher and the recipient of an ARC, it is doubtful whether putting “not for resale” on the book’s cover is a legally binding action; this discussion raises several points along those lines. However, that doesn’t imply any lack of ethical implications to selling ARCs; plenty of good arguments exist for why it’s a crummy thing to do. The example I gave in my presentation of a situation where it might be ethical—to feed a starving child—was deliberately extreme, to illustrate the point that general principles can have exceptions.

30 May 2010 | uncategorized |