Blogs and Conflicts of Interest

Since I'm clearly not part of the Business Tribe™, I have been amusing myself for the past couple of days getting acquainted with Busi-Speak™ and the Business Bloggers™. It's a whole new world. One of the commenters in my last post referred to Penelope Trunk. Never heard of her. Trunk claims to have 30,000 subscribers, but I don't know how that translates into actual readership.

Her post of the week is on whether there can be conflicts of interest and blogging. She writes,

So we don’t need stupid rules about conflict of interest for people
who are putting themselves on the line. That rule is for old media,
where writers were putting only the brand of the newspaper on the line.
In old media most journalists were no-names, writing under big
(newspaper) names. So if they wrote something moronic, so that they
could increase the value of a stock they held, or, maybe, get more oral
sex, they would put only the newspaper brand at risk. Not their own.

Which means that the arcane conflict of interest rules are to
protect the newspaper, not the readers. And this, by the way, is why
newspapers are going down: because they are more about themselves, and
their hierarchies, and rules and structures, than they are about what
their readers want. Readers should not care about the business dealings
of the writers or their publishers. Readers just want good content.

Totally disagree, but it's an interesting post. Read the whole thing.

8 thoughts on “Blogs and Conflicts of Interest

  1. Her blog was a curious mixture of the reasonably clever and the surprisingly clueless. In one post she noted spending four hours or more writing her average posting. Unless you’re writing at Holbovian length, or something as clever as Bérubé (and she’s not doing either), that’s just crazy. But maybe it’s that minor train-wreck aspect that is the blog’s appeal?
    Anyway, she couldn’t be more wrong in the post you quote. People want to know if a writer is on the take; they want to know if the newspaper publisher is in bed with the powers-that-be; they want to know if a blogger is praising product X because the manufacturer paid for the post. Or maybe readers don’t necessarily *want+ to know, but if they find out, then they will re-evaluate whatever that source says. Bloggers, when they are good, may have more authenticity; but if they burn their credibility, that authenticity won’t much matter.
    I’m preaching to the choir here; I think I’ll go over there and pipe up.

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  2. Or not. Plenty of commentary, and Sturgeon’s Law is rigorously enforcing itself. Glad I’m not part of that Tribe™®.

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  3. Doug, whenever you comment, I find myself having to look things up on Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary. My sci-fi slang and character appreciation in particular is growing.
    But what was Kibo? Japanese for “hope”?

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  4. Kibo is/was an internet personality back in the days when usenet was still a viable medium. He was known for appearing and commenting in pretty much any comment thread anywhere, whenever someone used the word “kibo”. Sorta like Seth Godin’s apparent manifestation here.
    I’m glad you’re enjoying the references, Julie!

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  5. “Anyway, she couldn’t be more wrong in the post you quote. ”
    Yeah. It’s an issue that’s already been explored with medical/science ethics, because there, too, one has a personal relationship with the author, and repeat credibility matters. She tries to say journalism & blogging are different because the journalist is anonymous. And, I can’t speak to that difference. But, blogging/medicine are not different in that regard. What is different is the difference between conflicts of interest that apply to everyone, and ones that apply only to a particular person. Yes, everyone needs to publish to succeed, so when you sign something on a manuscript that says “I have no conflict of interest” you’re really saying that I have no more conflict of interest than anyone else who would be submitting and publishing this article (i.e. we all benefit from the publication of our articles). Yes, we know that writing articles/blogging that produces traffic and interest, and attracts important people to your site will benefit you personally, but there’s nothing hidden about that benefit. If, on the other hand, you’re getting paid to talk about it (for example, let’s say that PT was slipping Laura some bucks), the link and commentary mean something completely different.
    Now, I think the question of whether simple disclosure is sufficient is a different one to discuss. I do sometimes think that COI rules that actually forbid the person who knows the most (i.e. the doctor who ran the study on the drug)can be problematic.

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  6. “People want to know if a writer is on the take; they want to know if the newspaper publisher is in bed with the powers-that-be; they want to know if a blogger is praising product X because the manufacturer paid for the post. Or maybe readers don’t necessarily *want+ to know, but if they find out, then they will re-evaluate whatever that source says.”
    Yep. There was a web piece at Ed News recently by Andy Isaacs praising the Everyday Math curriculum to the skies and saying that it was exactly what we need for the 21st century. I think he and Ed News needed to spell out his financial and professional connections with Everyday Math (he’s one of their textbook authors) much more explicitly, making it clear that his piece was essentially an official response, rather than the independent opinion of a scholar. The piece reads like a publisher’s blurb, but I think it really needs a little explanation either at the top or the bottom explaining his professional ties.
    http://www.ednews.org/articles/the-case-for-everyday-mathematics–.html

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  7. “The piece reads like a publisher’s blurb, but I think it really needs a little explanation either at the top or the bottom explaining his professional ties.”
    So, I completely agree that disclosure is necessary in this example. But, this is a also great example of the other side, because I don’t automatically devalue the opinion of someone because they’ve written a textbook on the subject. If you are a math educator, and believe that a particular method of teaching is excellent, then, you’re likely to want to write a textbook on it if you can. That’s a part of what experts do on the subject. I think what I’d want to know about Isaacs is if he actually makes money if someone adopts the text (it’s unclear, from his bio, because he is not an author on the current version of the Everyday math textbooks. He may serve as a consultant to the company. But, I suspect that he doesn’t have a clear COI in the sense that his writing will affect his income. It does, however, affect his professional reputation, but that would be true on any idea that a scientist/researcher/academic had advocated in the past and continues to advocate (every day math, or Hebbian plasticity, or whatever).
    That being said, I completely agree that the article reads like a publishing blurb, including the “We agree with” — who is we? and “Wright Group Representatives are always available to help.” Reading the blurb, with Isaacs listed as being from the University of Chicago School of Mathematics Project, I’d question the relationship between the project & Wright publishing. The article is clearly advocating the curriculum specifically, and not the academic theory hat motivate it. In fact, even more, I’d say that it’s advocating a brand-name drug, and not the active ingredient in it. If Isaacs has a paid consultancy agreement, or if the publishing group funds the math project at UC, that information should definitely be disclosed.

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  8. Doug, “maybe it’s that minor train-wreck aspect that is the blog’s appeal?”
    exactly so.. I read with fascinated horror. Penelope is a kind of unreliable narrator, with provocation as the chief part of the stock in trade. There is often useful information, vide the post on Linked-In, which is actually helpful: but it’s not the main attraction.

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