As a further comment to Ctein's "Payola," below, another fact of life in product reviewing is that it's virtually impossible for any magazine or website to establish and maintain the same relationship with all companies equally.
That's true when some of the companies advertise with you and some don't, but it's also true even in the absence of the advertising influence. Even the biggest publications have some sort of natural bias; their staff has certain interests, and uses and likes certain types of products. Naturally, they'll tend to attract a readership that is also interested in those things. Then, to get to that same readership, the companies that make appropriate products gravitate toward that publication.
For many years, for example, Photo Techniques was edited by one practicing sensitometrist (David Alan Jay) and had another as a Contributing Editor (and de facto technical editor, although he never held that title)—Phil Davis, author of Beyond the Zone System. Phil wrote many articles centering around sensitometry, and David was supportive of that type of content.
In fact, when I took over from David Alan Jay, he said to me that to "fully participate" in his magazine, a reader needed to own three things: a sheet-film camera, a spotmeter, and a densitometer.
It just happens that some companies will like and support certain publications, and vice-versa, and a relationship builds. Certain relationships grow and flourish while others wither and go moribund. As time goes on, that process tends to reinforce itself. Remember that many companies have very small advertising budgets. They might be able to place their ads in only a handful of publications, or only two, or just one. They strategize very carefully to try to figure out where an ad placement will do them the most good. Certainly, X-Rite wasn't going to try to have its latest densitometer reviewed in Petersen's Photographic, and Kodak wasn't going to advertise disposables with us.
After some years have gone past, you find you've known certain business associates for a long time. They might even become friends. Sometimes advertising is indeed a part of that mix; sometimes it isn't. The relationships tend to ebb and flow anyway. That seems both natural and unavoidable.
Featured Comment by John Camp: "This topic, perhaps cast in somewhat wider terms, is one that whole journalism courses are devoted to, and it's not an easy one. The most recent really big blow-up on the camera-oriented 'net, as far as I know, was Michael Reichmann's predicament with his review of the Leica M8 on his Luminous Landscape.
"(I won't explain here, but if you google 'Reichmann Leica M8 magenta review,' you'll find more than you probably want to read.)
"A lot of people have reflexive reactions to this kind of thing (usually, publish and damn the consequences), but the longer you think about it, the more troubling the consequences become. In my view, Reichmann was more-or-less screwed the moment the Leica turned up in the mail. At that point, something bad was going to happen no matter what he did.
"Interestingly enough, though, he then published a column which recounted his reactions to the M8, and his decision not to refer to certain problems with the camera. That's when the stuff hit the fan—but that's exactly at the point in which I decided that he was more trustworthy than I otherwise might have expected. He could have kept his mouth shut, and no one would have been the wiser; instead, he admitted what he'd done, and explained why.
"This whole issue is a bottomless bucket. IMHO, there is no 'answer' to the problems created; it's something that has to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. In the Reichmann case, I believe I might have done the same thing he did, right down the line. I just wonder if I'd have had the balls to admit it later."
Featured Comment by Ken Sky: "Start with the premise that no one can be totally without bias. An honest reviewer lays out his/her bias at the beginning of the review. The review should provide as much objective information as possible (data) and when the reviewer draws conclusions all caveats should be pointed out as well as the criteria for these conclusions. Unfortunately, we as consumers/audience are also part of the distortion. How many of us can honestly say that we have read the article the first (only) time from beginning to end before skipping to the conclusions? If we do the latter we become biased as to how we absorb the data. That's what leads to all the fighting on internet fora."
Mike responds: Ken Sky raises a point that's vivid to writers but seldom acknowledged on the internet: readers often read poorly, incompletely, or with their whatever-colored glasses on. Sometimes they reach closure early, occasionally way too early. I'm aware of one phenomenon I call the "imported argument": it's when we raise the specter of an issue that a commenter has long been arguing on another forum, and he brings to our article all the arguments he'd developed on that other forum—sometimes without bothering to comprehend the subtleties of the argument being made here. I'm good at recognizing this.
Then, just as surely, we all tend to read for affirmation: a person who badly wants to think that a camera is great, for example, might gloss over or miss the negative points stated right there in black and white under his nose. But of course the most common error is simply quick scanning and sloppy reading. I'll often receive questions that were explicitly answered within the article. Just as listening is a skill that requires intelligence and attentiveness and that can be mastered, so is reading. Of course, good and bad readers might be the same person—each of us—in different situations or on different days. Habitual careful reading is relatively rare, I would guess.