Frequent Miler recently experienced a dilemma over whether to accept a free rental from Silvercar:
Ultimately, my decision had less to do with ethics or the desire to remain unbiased than a fierce determination to keep 100% control over my content. This situation introduced a very small requirement: write something about my experience. That sounds simple enough. But, maybe I’ll rent the car and there won’t be anything interesting to write about. What then? I simply did not want that hanging over me.
As that excerpt indicates, there are logistical as well as ethical considerations to accepting freebies. My time and energy are limited at this point in my life, what with a full-time job, a part-time job (this blog and related hobby activities), and several kids, so I don’t even know if I’d have the bandwidth to accept a free trip (for example), as it’s hard enough just to use the points I already have. The last time we tried a one-night trip to a location 90 minutes away, we had three kids come down with ear infections.
Fortunately I never have many ethical issues to deal with as a blogger since companies never offer me anything, possibly because of things like this, and possibly because not many people read this blog (only the best and brightest, right folks?). But I don’t really care if Frequent Miler or anybody else accepts giveaways; I’m more concerned as to whether somebody crosses the line from blogging to shilling, and regardless of how hard you try, it can be difficult to resist the corruption that money sometimes brings.
I recently called out One Mile At A Time for what I felt was an example of letting money sway his opinion of certain financial products. I do think that there are systemic issues with credit card marketing, and I do think that holding bloggers accountable (yo TBB!) helps keep the general level of nonsense lower than it otherwise would be.
But I don’t think he’s a bad guy or a bad blogger, though. I think he’s human. This is far from the only industry where conflicts abound, and you’ll see conflicts of interest in many other places if you take a look. Marketing dollars can sway doctors’ choices in prescribing drugs. Coca-Cola has been paying for scientific research it can use to downplay the effect of its drinks on health (in related news, half the nation is now diabetic or pre-diabetic). There are mild conflicts of interest for real estate agents. And so forth and so on.
The point is, take everything with a grain of salt, including everything in this blog. Maybe I’m just pointing out ethical issues to make myself look better by comparison as part of a complicated long con. Who knows? Bullshit abounds.
If you’re a blogger, it’s okay to get compensated. Accept a free car rental / hotel room / whatever, just be honest about it, even to the point of acknowledging that the freebie may influence your coverage, though of course you should try not to let it. Ideally you’d avoid all conflicts of interest, but some of you do this as a full-time job, and bloggers gotta eat. I have a full-time job that has nothing to do with blogging so it’s easy to for me to eschew entanglements, but it’s not so easy when it’s your livelihood.
If you’re a commenter, call us out on conflicts of interest, but try to do so in a reasonable way. (Note: beginning a sentence with “You bloggers” decreases your chances of being listened to by said bloggers.)
And if you’re just a reader, pay attention to financial incentives, follow the money, and caveat emptor.