If Al Jazeera invites dozens of bloggers to the Middle East in order to cover a forum that is designed to promote the Arab television station, should those bloggers: a) take the free trip, or b) disclose the freebie to their readers if they do?
The questions are not rhetorical. Al Jazeera held just such a forum earlier this year, and according to Alvin Snyder at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, "at least 100 blogger-delegates had all travel and accommodation costs covered, courtesy of their host sponsor." Few of them disclosed that fact to their readers, Snyder wrote in a piece titled "The Ethical Dilemma of Blogging."
Glover at Beltway Blogroll takes the view that (1) "bloggers must disclose the trip" and that (2) "bloggers who cover government affairs never should have accepted the trip in the first place".
(1) is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, disclosure is an ethical standard and a basic courtesy.
(2), however, is far different. Glover makes the common mistake of conflating bloggers with journalists; blogger ethics with journalistic ethics, as if blogging is a profession with the attending responsibilities and universally accepted standards. That's just not the case. As much as we might occassionally like to be treated as, and feted alongside, professional journalists — and despite the fact that bloggers sometimes do similar work — blogging has no more incumbent ethical obligations than does emailing or merely talking with friends.
Blogging may be different in format, but it is no different in nature than any other comment. I have no obligations as a blogger that I do not have as an individual; no standards as a blogger other than those I have as a fellow who likes to discuss news, government and philosophy. Whether I address myself to a friend via email, a stranger at the gym or an audience on the internet, my ethical obligations do not change. Journalists have different ethical standards, because their profession — both consumers and producers — insists upon it.
Bloggers are just people communicating, and if we were to stop communicating about everybody with whom we have a prior relationship, we'd have little left about which to communicate.
That said, let me make some disclosures: Should I write about somebody/something from which I've received compensation, I will disclose that relationship to our readers. If you're ok with that...by all means, ante up. I'll gladly accept and blog about a trip to the Middle East, the Netherlands, or most anywhere else. I'll blog about a book, a beanbag chair, or a video game. I'll put up a post on your business, your candidate or your campaign. I'll write about the importance of free trade with China, the worthlessness of the Cuba embargo or the merits of certain factions of Islam.
But I'll be intellectually honest when I do so. And I'll disclose the background to our readers.
But, really, I'm perfectly OK with taking trips on, accepting payment from, or establishing relationships with the people about whom I write. And if you want to help get me published elsewhere, help me establish a libertarian activism organization, or get me a job doing what I'm doing now....by all means, do so.
Being a capitalist, I'm OK with that. Being a blogger is irrelevant.