Clarifying the Food Blogger Code of Ethics

by foodethics

Wow. What an incredible 48 hours. Thank you to the thousands of people that visited our fledgling blog (it was born just days ago!) and weighed in on the topic of what is or isn’t ethical in the world of food blogging.

We live in exciting, dynamic times. Print media—newspapers and magazines—are struggling to hold on in an environment where the immediacy and accessibility of the web has broad appeal. This is particularly true in the world of food writing.

Professional journalists, amateur food writers and gastro-diarists alike have embraced the blog as an effective, informal format to reach hungry readers or, simply, to share their experiences. What makes food blogging so exciting is that it makes it just as possible that a reader could enjoy the gustatory musings of a mom in the mid-west as the hard reporting of a writer on the city food beat. The web is like a great big dinner party and everyone is invited.

Welcome to the party
The funny thing about that dinner party metaphor is how true it is. When you invite a diverse group of people to a party, some of them get along, some of them don’t, some of them gossip and some of them spend the entire evening trying to introduce people to others who they think share common ideals. And there’s always one or two, who quietly stand in the corner with a glass of wine taking it all in.

To continue on this metaphorical path without getting all Emily Post on you, we feel there’s a basic standard of etiquette that most people who attend social gatherings ascribe to, or at least know of and choose to ignore. We wrote the Food Blog Code of Ethics after many heated conversations with fellow food bloggers. Those discussions inspired us to lay down some basic guidelines for food writing on the Internet because we couldn’t find any that already existed. These aren’t laws that we expect everyone to follow. These aren’t rules you have to accept as your own. We know they don’t apply to everybody. They’re a jumping off point to start a bigger discussion.

With that said, we are so excited about the thoughtful comments posted here and around the web about this topic. Not everyone agrees with The Code and that’s cool. We’re just glad to know people are thinking about what their blogs mean—to themselves and their readers—and what they’re trying to put out into the world. Because, let’s face it folks, you may not consider yourself a writer, but when you’re publishing a blog for the world to see—you are.

We’ve spent the past few days synthesizing all of the feedback we’ve gotten, and we realize that there are a couple of things that we need to clarify:

Review Guidelines
When it comes to criticism, our ideas behind The Code are two-fold. Up front, we don’t think people, whether they write for magazines or newspapers or blogs or Yelp, should use their publication or site’s name to intimidate or blackmail. We don’t think all reviews should be positive by any stretch—solid criticism elevates the discourse about good food and good products and is necessary. But, when reviewers abuse their power, they give critics as a whole a bad name and undermine potentially valid criticisms.

This leads us to our second point. If readers are going to rely on the reviews they find on the web, to decide which restaurants they are going to go to or what products they’ll buy, they need to trust the authors. Like with any good business, transparency and accountability is the key to that trust.

Do I really need to visit a restaurant more than once to be part of The Code?
Though we understand that going to a restaurant more than once isn’t always possible, we do believe that the idea of going multiple times should be considered. Could the experience you had be the result of a fluke bad night? Were you so hungry by the time you arrived that you would have been grateful for anything you put in your mouth? Or, conversely, that you were so hungry, no length of time waiting for your food to come out would have been tolerable? These are questions that all reviewers can ask themselves.

So when we talk about going to restaurants multiple times in the code, we realize that it’s an ideal. Some people are writing about restaurants that they go to in their travels, and most of us don’t have the money to go to places more than once (and find it especially hard to cough up the extra dough if a place stinks the first time we go). The code suggests that if you only go to a restaurant once, say so. We have updated the code to try and clarify this point.

We recognize the potential need for the code to be dynamic in order for it to reflect the changing world of online media and the growing discussion about blogging ethics. While we don’t anticipate substantive changes to The Code, if we clarify or augment the document, we’ll be sure to notify those people on the blogroll by email, giving them an opportunity to weigh in or opt out if they no longer agree (thanks

Do I have to be a journalist to follow the code?
Hell no! (But thanks for asking.) The great thing about the blogosphere is that you don’t have to be a journalist to publish your work in a worldwide forum. In fact, one of the reasons we started this was because we understand that plenty of bloggers don’t have journalism backgrounds and probably weren’t aware of some of the guidelines about image, recipe and quote usage and attribution. The Internet is filled with talented people who put a lot of hard work into their craft, we just want to make sure that work is protected and respected.

Recipe attribution
Do’h. We left that very important element out of the code in our effort to publish this document in a timely manner (thanks Bowl of Plenty). We’ve updated the code.

Prohibitionists! Don’t tell us what we can or can’t say!
Wow, we were surprised by how many people actually thought our Code was intended to limit food bloggers’ freedom of speech. Let us repeat: The Code is not intended to limit anyone’s freedom of speech. We offer these pages to advocate accountability, accuracy and honesty in the world of food blogging. The Code is designed as a set of guidelines, not a punishable set of laws.

We’ve gotten lots of questions and comments about how the usage of photos fits into The Code. In a perfect world, if you didn’t take the photo yourself, you would ask the photographer for permission to use it. Even if you haven’t asked for permission, you should include a caption that attributes the source. If you’re using stock photography, check the company’s rules regarding giving credit. You should probably attribute anyway, but in this case you are paying for the right to use the stock photo. *We are currently seeking advice for how this should be worded.

This is a big issue and one that is wonderfully complicated. Again, The Code doesn’t require people to reveal their identity on their blog; it suggests writing as if one’s identity was known. The idea here being, that you might say things under the veil of anonymity that you wouldn’t if you put your name to it. It all comes back to accountability. We’ll update The Code to try to make this more clear.

On the other hand, reviewers should always try to be anonymous when reviewing a restaurant. While it’s not always possible (did we mention the picture of S. Irene Virbila that circulates through L.A.’s restaurants?) it’s encouraged. Anonymous reviewers are best able to convey the experience of the average diner, and provide the closest approximation of objectivity that a reviewer expressing opinion can offer.

The Badge
We’ve decided to hold off on putting the badge out for now. We’re conflicted about the negative message the badge might convey. Please send us your feedback on the subject. If you’d like to be included on the “We the People” page, please shoot us an email at foodblogethics at gmail dot com.

If you would like more information about why we wrote The Code, feel free to visit our food blogs and search for the words “food blog ethics.”