Not About Food: Ethical Guidelines
Sorry for all these housekeeping posts. Regular food and wine programming will resume shortly. Meanwhile, take the OWF 5-Year Anniversary Reader Survey.
I get a number of press opportunities as the publisher of OWF, and I wanted to spell out my policies about freebies. Everyone sets their own rules for this kind of thing, but few disclose them. Some basic rules I follow: When I take samples, I don’t promise to review them, and I don’t promise to only post a good review; I flat out reject press junkets, which are both useless and pricey; and I will always disclose if the item was a freebie.
As a blogger, I decide whether I’ll take samples based on their relevance and educational opportunity for you. I don’t set explicit price caps, but the more expensive the item the more relevant it has to be: Few items pass the test. Recently, Visa offered me dinner at Quince’s chef's table. They wanted to demonstrate the benefits of the Visa Signatures Rewards program. But how relevant would that have been for you? This is not a lifestyle blog. Last year, a company offered me a lobe of fresh foie gras. This is relevant to you — some of you eat it and cook it when possible — but the company had repackaged Hudson Valley Foie Gras lobes. I’ve not only used that foie gras, I’ve done extensive research on their production methods. I already recommend it, and a new sample wouldn’t have added to my knowledge. On the other hand, I did take grass-fed steak samples, because I wanted to test the claims of meat terroir that grass-fed-beef producers often tout. I tend to take books and bottles of wine, because these are relevant and, for the producers, relatively inexpensive.
But I’m not just a blogger: I’m a professional writer. I decide whether or not to take samples based on a potential client’s impression of me. I never want an editor to look at this site and say, “Send him our ethical guidelines so he knows how strict we are.” I want him or her to say, “Wow, look how strict he is.” Freelance writers don’t have staff guidelines to shape our decisions. We are responsible for our own integrity. I take this to ludicrous extremes — I don’t participate in affiliate programs because they amount to kickbacks for reviews, and after I did work for Wilson Daniels, I told my other clients so they would be aware of any conflicts of interest — but who else will keep tabs on me? (All that said, when I’m on assignment for a publication, I follow their guidelines. I didn’t bat an eye when I received several $100/bottle samples for my heritage cabernet piece, because that was in line with The Wine News’ policies.)
In reality, I make my decision based on the WWJBD rule. What would Jon Bonné do? (Sometimes I just ask him.) Many writers are ethical, but the Chronicle's wine editor, along with Tish and maybe two other writers I know, actually thinks about ethics and integrity in a careful way.
So I don’t have explicit rules, but I do have guidelines that inform my decisions.