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Monday, 14 September 2009

Comments

I enjoyed the stories, Mike, and your writing
and your ethics. Keep up the good work.
and also Happy Birthday for the other day (I was out of e-range):it really is amazing what one day at a time can do....
best wishes...

Best article I've read on photography stuff in a long while; entertaining and truly illuminating.

Thanks for the sincerity, Mike.

As a reasonably successful blogger, I deal with this one myself. I think that, with one exception, these ethics are situational. Whether I'd accept a trip or a nice dinner or a long-term product loan would probably be influenced by how I feel about the product sector and the manufacturer in question.

But there's one rule a blogger can't break: transparency. I think it is an ethical axiom that you have to disclose absolutely every factor that might to a perception of a conflict of interest, no matter how slight. I don't pretend to be neutral or even always fair in what I write; but I do promise my readers that they'll know about all my affiliations and friendships and paychecks and even intangibles that could affect my judgment. My readers deserve nothing less.

Heh, and here's a conflict of interest that I bet lots of people in your position have and don't disclose; and I share it. We are irritated by the CaNikon duopoly and really, *really* want to see Ricoh or Sigma or Olympus or someone succeed with something that's quirky or innovative; and are probably guilty of being willing to cut them a little more slack than the Big Two. Subtle, but maybe just as important as who bought you lunch.

Hey, go to New York, but tell us who bought the ticket.

Fine article.
Plenty of food for thought for both the casual reader, and for those more closely concerned.

Your story doesn't at all surprise me at all. It's human nature. I work in consulting, and in a similar position, I was asked by a client in my line of work to do something I didn't agree with -- and of course I said no. I was eventually forced out a couple of months later.

I've seen a couple of cost breakdowns in the publishing industry and I certainly sympathise. Advertising is a large part of revenue and the editor to some respect, or whoever has the stewardship of the journal in mind, will no doubt have to make this unenviable call.

However, Mike -- you're the steward of The Online Photographer; not magazine X. You have the right to define your core values and what you need to do to make your publication unique (and of course flourish or survive).

I know this idea of core values sounds cheesy; but when I was being crunched by the client or some other tough situation -- it's great to think back and have a couple of key words that remind you of what you represent.

I'd say that objectivity and neutrality are two values that your blog are founded on... and for all those who don't see that -- this probably isn't the blog for them.

Pak

Heh. Basically, damned if you do and damned if you don't. A couple of points, most probably overlong...

Yes, there are "good" and "bad" reviewers.

Around here, there's a couple of people who charge money for any article about a company. Everybody knows that (among companies) and still nobody does anything. There are also people who don't write reviews but copy the PR pap. Companies find them useful, though, although they understand that such people are not respected.

There's a point about review copies: some things you can return, there's no sense in returning others while third group simply cannot be returned. First group, of course, cameras, lenses and similar. The second group, memory cards and stuff like that. The third group, software. I've received software worth thousands of euros to review. I couldn't return it because I installed it on my computer and I really didn't want to erase it, cause I liked the program. The situation is made quite easier by the fact that I didn't and don't make money with the software. I used to be a 3D enhtusiast, so I dabbled with the program, but photography cured me of all that. :-) I'd bet that you like the printer and that makes you feel worse. If you hadn't liked it, you'd've probably already forgotten it somewhere in the basement.

Junkets, I won't say you were a fool, because I understand where you're coming from, but I think you're wrong. Companies organise press events as a way to start their PR/advertising campaigns. It's understood. Accepting a trip to a such event you accept no other obligation except to write that they made something. Going to a launch doesn't mean you endorse a product. You can write about what you saw or what they introduced and that's that. You may like the product at first sight or may not and that's that. Being at such a launch you show that you're still running with the herd :-) and that somebody thinks you (or your publication) is worth something. Papers and magazines cannot pay for journalists to go to various product launches, at least around here, which is another moment to think of. Besides, if you think that camera manufacturers provide luxury trips, you should see what car industry does (or did). Like a trip to Morocco to introduce new direction indicators...

And yes, companies can be as insufferable and wrong as the bad "reviewers". I went to a trip where a manufacturer was introducing a product. The launch had some interesting moments for Croatia. I got back, wrote a short article and the magazine was published. After a while, the Croatian distributor of the product contacted the magazine, offended because I didn't mention them in the article. Man...

Mike,
I wish more of our elected offials thought as you do. You missed your true calling, so lets hear it, Mike Johnston for Mayor of Waukesha (is there an opening?). ch

Excellent introduction to journalistic ethics. Very much needed, it seems.

The real shocker in this recent dust up wasn't that one reviewer went on a junket but that another, on that same junket, says that he submits his review to the company prior to publication for their feedback. Wow.

If you want me to take you seriously you need to take your ethical obligations seriously.

--Darin

My daughter just spilled grape juice in my inkjet printer. And I don't write reviews of anything.

Just Sayin...

I'll tell you what Mike. Take the gear to test and write your review then donate it to me. :-) I suggest reviewing a Canon 5D mkII with a 24-105 L lens. It won't bother me at all to accept it.

"To thyne own self be true" just be sure to mention any contributing circumstances, and take the junkets. If your honest reputation is established (and yours is) the readers will not object. Luminous Landscape is an excellent example -- I trust nearly every word he writes, even though I may not agree with it.

It may be long, but it was certainly a worthwhile article. As you say, no definite rules can be made for others. It's a complicated question. Still, it's public-spirited of you to discuss it. Thanks.

Superb writing, again.

The true ethic's test of one's behavior (in almost everything in life) is "can I tell everyone about this?" If the answer is yes, it's probably ok. I suggest you go to New York, post a story or two about it, and also tell us who paid. We get even more good reading, you get to show other how it's supposed to be.
And regarding caveat'ing and emptor'ing, I'll be back here rather than somwhere else...

Mike,

I think you're perhaps TOO scrupulous. I have been writing software reviews for years, fairly regularly for one of the top mags in the USA. The basic idea there is, I can't review anything that comes from a company that I have worked for. A couple of my reviews did in fact lead to writing gigs from those companies, and compared to what reviewing pays, the gigs were fairly lucrative. But I knew that, once I'd taken their coin, I'd never be able to review their software again - and I dare say they knew that, too.

On the other hand, I review fairly regularly software that I myself use. The irony here is, while I do tend to think that whatever I'm using is a good product choice FOR ME PERSONALLY, I tend to know the faults of the products I use much more intimately than I know the faults of the products that I merely test and review. When I test and review software I don't use already, I generally bend over backwards to be fair. I assume that almost every software package out there exists because SOMEBODY likes it. My goal is to figure out what sort of person likes it and write the review so that person can see what this product has to offer them. When I was a professor (in an earlier life) and wrote book reviews, I did in fact review a couple books that really sucked, and even then, I tried to be nice. I HATE reviewing stuff that I do not judge to be good, because a bad review, for me, is ten times harder to write than a good one.

I do get non-rev copies of the software I review. Could not do it otherwise. And I get to keep the software. Sometimes I actually end up using it - usually not. Doesn't matter. I continue to call 'em like I see 'em. I think it's the editor's job to watch for reviewers who are turning into sycophants.

So... we don't review products from companies who are paying us or have paid us. It's not that having been paid automatically means you're in the tank. It doesn't, at least not for everybody. But it LOOKS wrong. And beyond that, you try to tell the truth, as you see it, even when occasionally you might not LIKE the truth you're telling. And that pretty much is the end of my Ethics Policy.

The most important point of all is the one you make at the end of your article: "caveat emptor all the way." Anybody who reads ONE review of a product costing over $25 and buys (or doesn't buy) on the basis of that one review, is acting imprudently. I figure my job is to be as impartial as I can in my reviews; and I think it's the job of readers not to take what I say blindly.

To me the ethical test is simple: would you think less of someone else if they did it, and can you look yourself in the mirror afterwards? I don't have a problem with a reviewer who is loaned equipment, and if it's fairly low cost I don't have a problem if he's allowed to buy it for a nominal fee afterwards... or keep it, if the cost of returning it to the manufacturer is more than the printer is actually worth to them. Just disclose all of the gritty details. Heck, you could even auction off your 'given' equipment and donate the money to charity.

P.S.: Mike, if they ever invite you to Solms after all of this, go!

Impressive. I'm glad I'm a (modest) subscriber even far away in Australia. I wish many others would make a similar contribution rather than take what Mike offers for free and for granted.

Hey Mike,

Yes it is a dilemma and I think a huge problem in other areas of writing as well. Take travel writing, and how about fashion magazines? As a matter of fact I feel that generally magazines and the articles we write for them are just an excuse for advertisers to push their wares......

wow... I am on the opposite side, I've taken journalists to lunch, I've paid hotels for them, trips, whatever. It's in my own interest, I know their employers will not have the budget to send them over to cover the event. Never expected in return anything else but their honest opinion. Of course it's harder to vilify somebody if you get to know him, but that's about it. Call it risk control, if you want.
In my bussiness is a quite common practice. In fact, most major companies organise junkets in desirable holiday cities because they save money. It's cheaper to organise just one event, and bring people from different countries to it, than organising one event in each country/area. So, they take journalists to a fab hotel where they take a film or a presentation and the get ten minutes each to interview Will Smith, or the designer of the new Oly, then enjoy a couple of days on their own.

As I see it, your only responsability is towards your readers. As far as you're honest with them, you can accept paid trips from the photo manufactures, new printers, whatever. It's certainly a similar case, you'll be able to attend more events and give us better and more info if you go to those events. You won't be able to review some products if they are not loaned to you (what are you supposed to do, buy it just for review, then resell and take a loss?) If your printed opinion is still honest, what's the problem?

Reviews are only as good as the reviewer. It's a personal thing. Unless I share many similarities with the reviewer I couldn't care less about his opinion, after all, he don't know what or how I like to photograph, hence his reviews are kinda pointless. Sure there are good and bad equipment out there, but what's important is: Do they work for ME?! The transition into digital photography is a good example. I should have waited five or six years before I got on the wagon. My first cameras, lenses, printers etc. were all crap, but I bought them, stupid and inexpereienced as I was, only to find out that I should have stuck with my film gear for much longer. But I bought the hype, read the reviews and became brainwashed.

Excellent writing, as always and a very cool grasp of the ethics involved. It's a shame others at other sites don't share your strict ethical views, especially those at very rich (popular) sites who can undoubtedly afford to be strictly ethical without having to resort to frozen pizza for a year! Anyone who takes offence at the expression of such views, or the expression of doubts over the objectivity of those who do not hold to them . . .is suspect in my book.

Mike,

I'm lazy. I've grown up with the net, and have a tiny attention span. Reading anything usually requires a fair amount of effort, even blog posts. I have a ton of stuff I subscribe to in Google Reader, much of it I skip past. Except TOP. You're a great writer. Thoughtful and eloquent, funny too.

I just wanted to cheer you up. I guess the last day or so has been more stressful then usual.

Thanks for this thoughtful and pointed reflection, Mike. You are not simply one of the best writers about cameras and photography on the web but a gentleman who I continue to respect.

Mike, you'll have read this piece [nytimes.com], in which the New York Times begins to talk about the potential conflict of interest faced by David Pogue, its tech columnist. David makes money writing books about the products he reviews and I think the editors' decision was the right one: publish the fact and let readers decide.

I'm always a little surprised at how little interaction TOP seems to have with publishers and manufacturers. With the influence and readership of this site, you're apparently not sent much in the way of books, printers, cameras and software. I vote for disclosure and more involvement: the reviews of books, shows, products and so on. My only concern is that your writing about things other than products and services—whether on or off topic—would suffer. You're not just a review site and your broader thoughts are such a strong part of this site's appeal.

Do you remember the late George Bishop's column in CAR magazine? George would discuss in some detail the menus at the lavish dinners to which car makers would invite him and would focus on the wines. (This was more than twenty years ago and there did seem to be an awful lot of wine.) He'd write a few words about the cars in passing and, I seem to remember, quite often about the prangs and scrapes he was involved in and his collection of Lancia Gamma coupés. An early and subtle form of full disclosure, perhaps. If George could manage that twenty years ago, you can manage a few industry events without it affecting your style of writing.

I was going to review your article but I am sending this instead..........http://etrouko.com.au/art/22.jpg

Bravo Mike. Your ethical awareness is one of the reasons so many of your readers are here and not there (other sites). You're also a damn good writer to boot.

Tom

P.S. I think you should cut yourself some slack and be comfortable with the printer; it's (that's "it's" not "its") not as if you wrote favorable comments in exchange.

Hi Mike,
Your relaxed candour is, as ever, to be heartily applauded. I can almost hear you speaking in the measured, 'tell it like it is' voice of Alistair Cook, who for years and years did a weekly radio spot called 'Letter from America' on the BBC. There was something indefinably comforting about him, one knew that with people like him around, all was not lost in the World. Am I going over the top, pun not intended, maybe. But, keep it up Mike, I dont know where you get the energy to put out you brand of common sense day after day.
KG. Cornwall. UK

Kickbacks, junkets etc don't bother me nearly as much as general sloppiness. Who today considers "in depth review" as anything meaningful? What was the testing methodology? Did the reviewer make any attempt to test the product in all ways that potential purchasers would eventually use it? Did the imperative to get the review out first override all other concerns? Does the reviewer's subsequent actions tally with their publicly expressed enthusiasm? Let's face it, most reviewers don't have the time nor inclination to give the product anywhere near the attention both the product and readers deserve. What we most often get is a casual and purely subjective response which peppers the review with superlatives. By the time the hapless purchaser has discovered serious flaws in the product, the reviewer has moved on to gush about whatever the latest widget is. There's zero accountability. And what amazes me is the uncritical nature of readers that simply go back for more. Not to say there aren't decent reviewers out there, just that they're few and far between.

Very interesting. Two things come to mind:

1) I have friends who write for car magazines, and they have regaled me frequently and at great length with tales of similar ethical problems in that particular journalistic enclave. Many, in fact, nearly identical to some of your anecdotes above. To some extent, it's a thing that almost has to happen: you have a writer reviewing a consumer good, and the review could affect the bottom line of a big corporation, and, well, any time you have a whole lot of money on one side and a fallible human on the other... Even so, I know I was certainly shocked to discover how grubby things could get.

And, 2) It's very interesting to watch how all this is evolving in the smaller-scale world of online journalism (blogs especially, but also web magazines). Certainly, as you say, one finds fewer Employers setting ethical guidelines for the writer(s), and more people writing without a traditional J-school and J-job background. But, interestingly, I've found that when people write or blog under their own names (or pseudonyms), it seems they do a far better job than the print journalists of disclosing - "Company X invited me to Event Y where I got to play with Product Z, and boy, that resort they put us in was nice." At least, the reviewers I seek out online, the ones who are giving perceptibly honest and fair assessments, also seem inclined to tell more of the whole story. So maybe there's some hope there.

A fascinating read. I find the final thought about not having the right to question the attitude of others particularly interesting. If only the rest of us would borrow a page from your book!

I don't know that I could summarize simply why this is the only source of photo-related articles (print or web) that I regularly come to, but I suspect that the combination of sophisticated writing and play-it-straight attitude is a big part of it. Thank you.

From this reader's standpoint, I think you're being a little hard on yourself. As long as you give us an honest, unfettered opinion of the product you're reviewing, with full disclosure, you're doing your job properly.

So don't be afraid to take the trip to New York or Paris or wherever. Life is short, and there's a lot of interesting cameras out there. Most importantly, TOP readers want to read about them. Don't worry, we trust 'ya.

Mike,

Someone once said that your character can be defined by what you do and how you act when no one else is around to see you. I read TOP and believe what you say based on many years of following your writing. You take if from there.

Dennis Mook

Thanks, Mike, for a very informative article. For a free-market economy to work properly, there has to be equal information on both sides for an exchange to be priced appropriately. Unfortunately, product marketing departments avoid honest exchange of information. So we rely on "independent authorities" to help us as consumers. Your insider view of reviewers reinforces caveat emptor as a necessary principle.

Jesus dude, enough with the inward looking soul searching. You have the best photography website on planet earth as far as I can make out- mainly due to good writing, and a personal honesty that simply shines through your posts. Chillax. I'll read you forever, and allow me to order an advance copy of whatever (non-publishable) book you write, sight unseen, RIGHT NOW.

Just like Siskel (sp?) and Ebert, where there's two or more sides to an issue, there's going to probably be more than one side to a review of any camera product. So be objective and give the review your best shot and let the reader decide on the value of your viewpoint.

And whether or not as a reviewer you get to keep the object being reviewed or not means nothing to me. Maybe that's being naive, but I really don't care.

In reading the essay; for that is what it is,
I am struck by one underlying fact.
You, Mike Johnston are just too darn honest
and above board for your own good.

For which I am grateful and very thankful.

Wish there were more of your kind in the world.

Bless You My Son!

A very interesting post Mike. I expect you'll get a lot of comments. Here's my two pennys.

I think that even without any kind of policing or bosses looking over their shoulders bloggers do have an audience that either trusts them or not. If the blog makes money from advertising that is still dependent on users clicking through. Users who don't like you or trust you won't click through.

Frankly I'm completely unimpressed with journalistic ethics. The New York Times has still not apologized for "I've seen the future and it works."

If you feel you would be tempted to distort your findings by accepting an inducement it would take the fun out of your writing. You would begin to resent your work and that is a very high price in my opinion.

Readers can never know for sure if a writer fully meets their standards (which are a wild variable in themselves) as the writer can always bend the truth. But you will know if you meet your own standards. I think it is harder to get up in the morning if we don't respect ourselves.

WOW. I bet your glad you got that off the chest.

Reviewing is a strange business. Some feel that they need to agree with the reviewers. Some say reviewers should be objective. I can't imagine that either of these views are anything but ridiculously idealistic.

I think all reviewers can do is be consistent and try to put their biases up front. This is true for movies, books, condoms, etc.

Coming to camera reviews/reviewers, I'm a firm believer that a decent opinion may be obtained by reading a variety of reviews. I'm partial to Luminous Landscape, along with some of the numbers oriented sites (DPR, Photozone, Imaging Resource, etc.) What I cannot imagine is reading one of these and not the others.

Mike,

My thought is TOP is more like an online magazine than like a personal blog. Personal blogs generally only have one byline.

Providing "unbiased" advice is tough to the point of impossibility. The very best you can do is be aware of the possible sources of your own biases, compensate for them as best you can, and declare any major factor up front. That can be tough since reviewers, as with all of us, have biases they may not even be aware of.

Being a disinterested provider of advice is somewhat different. That is in the sense of having none of your own interests (especially financial ones) tied up in the content of or outcome from your advice. (Not the all-too-common disinterested=uninterested usage.) Having your own interests involved, in this sense, provides an obvious source of potential bias, but complete disinterest does not guard against other sources of bias. These can include anything from "I don't like black cameras and this one only comes in black" through "I shoot mainly in B&W and so don't notice colour issues so much."

The last is slightly topical (given recent rehashing of events in the Leica space) and most difficult to guard against as it is often unconscious. You can't make an up-front declaration of a bias you're unaware of.

It is all too easy to speculate (or even construct conspiracy theories) about things that might compromise the disinterestedness of a reviewer while completely missing other, perhaps more subtle, sources of potential bias.

...Mike F

It ain't the junket. It's failing to disclose the fact that you got to someone's World HQ on their dime. Or worse weasel-wording together a perception that you paid your own way there.

Write your Reviewer's Manifesto to tell us (and the potential junket/equipment for review providers) up front what you will and won't do. State that you'll keep things below some nominal value because it will cost more in your time and effort to return it than the thing sells for. Donate that stuff, keep it, or do an annual drawing for review swag for us TOP groupies.

Do the full disclosure thing and give us your opinion of the cool stuff that's heading our way. And have a bit of fun while you're on those trips.

I live in a place where many government officials take for granted gifts given just because they "efficiently" did the job they are paid to do. To them it's not wrong.
I think it is wrong.
Actually, I am amazed, awed, that you take the stand you do. Even if I totally agree in my heart that you are doing the right thing, I wouldn't be sure if, confronted with the same sort of perks and temptations, I would continue to stand the way you have. I'd probably find myself washed away in the river called "everybody else is doing it".

This is a great piece, and really has me thinking...

My question for Mike is: what is the basis of the ethical standard you are upholding or appealing to?

To my mind, the practice of reviewing consumer goods does not carry the ethical weight of, say, newspaper journalism. You are providing an opinion, colored by many factors, about a device for sale. I for one, would not care if I knew that a reviewer was getting perks, in fact, I suppose if pressed I would assume they were.

I can decide for myself what camera is best. Reviews are fun to read, and can certainly inform, but I really don't believe there needs to be any ethical accountability. There is no claim to objectivity when you are talking about things like image quality. If you fabricated shutter lag times or some other statistic...maybe that'd be a problem, but that's not what you're talking about here.

Too cynical? I guess I am pretty young; I've never seen a "photography" magazine that wasn't a long series of ads anyway...

Kudos to you for being as transparent as possible. There are so many shades of grey, but if you can openly talk about it, then you're holding yourself accountable and people can make a call for themselves how much they think the reviewer is being influenced by the giveaways.

Thanks again.

Hi Mike:

Probably the best summary of the subject that I have read; you seem to have an uncanny ability to express in words some of my own ideas. When I read many reviews of photo equipment either in magazines or on the web, it is obvious that there is a bias most of the time. Let's face it we all have biases; let's just be explicit instead of pretending they don't exist. You are one of the few journalist's who are willing to discuss where you are coming from in relation to your opinions. We live in a world where those with the "gold" rule but many try to hide this fact and pretend unbiased conclusions using so called scientific means. Photography, as an art, is difficult to judge scientifically; although we can measure lines per inch and other technical parameters. That is never enough.


Keep up the inspiring work.

Mike,
I'm reminded of so many instances in my days as a newspaper reporter.
As a journalism student I was taught to hold the highest standards of ethics and impartiality - it was drilled into me on a daily basis. So I was quite shocked when, working on my practicum at a weekly paper, I turned in some "feature" photos of kids having a snowball fight in the summer. The editor threw them in the garbage because they weren't good enough and said I should have posed the kids for a better angle.
Day one in photojournalism class was NEVER POSE PHOTOS! The lines had started to blur.
Later as a news reporter/photographer I ran a photo story of the local firefighters engaging in a controlled burn of a derelict building for practice. The property had been bought by a developer who was going to build a restaurant on the site and the editor asked me to grab a shot of him with the model of the new building for "possible future use".
As I was doing the layout of the photo spread the editor walked by and commented that he wasn't seeing the shot of the developer and his model. I thought he was joking so I continued with my page design of shots with firefighters jumping through flames, climbing ladders and wielding axes. When I presented my final proof the editor hit the roof! Shouts of "who the hell do you think pays your wages" etc. still ring in my ears. So the cheesy grip-and-grin of the property developer ended up in the middle of my ode to heroic community servants and the new restaurant generously ordered a quarter-page ad.
Lastly, as a sports editor I remember getting a particularly nasty phone call from a hockey team sponsor. He happened to also be the owner of the local McDonald's and had shrewdly named his team...McDonald's. Most of the other teams would have names such as the "Metropolis Red Wings" or the "Smallville Bruins" so I could easily refer to the team without overly mentioning the business name. But McDonald's would end up with a lot of mentions if I had to write an article that concerned the team.
However this particular team wasn't playing particularly well this season so the business wasn't getting too many free mentions in the sports section. The owner called me up and insisted that I write more articles about his team or he would pull all his sponsorship and the hockey league would die, and it would all be my fault!
i told him to go to hell and my editor backed me up this time - McDonald's hadn't been buying any ads in our paper!

Long, yes – wonderful and instructive, yes – well written & edited, yes.
Three yesses makes it a winner! Thanks

Nice discussion Mike. I can understand why you wrote this piece.

My experience in writing for photo publications has been rather recent and I do not have the years of experience that you have seen. I think what concerns me the most these days is that mainstream photo publications have all but collapsed, taken over by small internet publications. What I appreciated the most about traditional photo publications (magazines and newspapers) is that there was an editor in charge of the story content---hopefully some one impartial to the writers and the reviewed equipment and technology that could weight in on the merits and worthiness of what was written.

I am not seeing this now, with but a few exceptions. It does not matter if its a photo publication or newspaper or magazine, the economic collapse of publications by the pressure of the internet has tainted the lot. Most publications are considerably without check and review, relying on the principal party's integrity. The revenue structure of the internet publication is often running so lean that its all the publication can do just to keep going.

I have also seen fierce fighting among publications because the "one man band" aspect of the publications has created a "dog eats dog" rivalry that seems all but absurd. It makes me sad.

Photography equipment makers are in a bind too. Where do they announce and advertise their products? It use to be that they could advertise and be reviewed with well known photo publications. Thanks to "death by internet" most of these traditional publications have dried up. So a company has to turn to what ever they can get---and perhaps get away with.

I try to write about what I specifically use for my own work. Sadly, that is a luxury position. Photo publications do not have that choice of narrowing down their focus to but a handful of gear as I do.

Even though I write about what I use for my own work, I am not without bias. Is the bias good or bad? I know people and products within the industry that have proven to me over the years to be of reliable benefit to my work. Friendships form around trust. But trust leads to bias.

One of things I like about TOP is that equipment may be discussed, but photography and the art of photography is the real hero. I really get sick of hearing about gear. My professional experience with gear has been--"you get what you pay for PERIOD." What intrigues me greatly is seeing the work and hearing the stories of generation after generation of photographers and what they have brought to the art-form, and why they gave their lives to the work.

Mike, keep smiling Amigo! TOP is a treasure because of it.

Pete

Mike,

Take the money and run. Think of all your faithful readership (like me), who appreciate your integrity, donate a few bucks now and then because we like reading your stuff (but only because it keeps us from our own work), and then shrug and pocket the oof (old anglicism: see P.G. Wodehouse). People with integrity get buried in paupers' lots. And feeing bad about oneself on a beach is much less painful than doing it somewhere else.

Photogdave, I think that a headline like "Metropolis Red Wings fly as McDonald's Chokes" would have gotten a call to stop writing about that team.

The getting free advertizing into the sports section reminds me of a story about a automobile body shop that had their ads painted on the bottom of the cars at the local dirt track, since the paper only printed pictures of crashes.

Read extensively of all the reviewer's writings. After a while you'll have enough information to enable a useful basis for interpreting his reviews.
Remember the law of forums: on the internet bad news is exponential, good news is noise.
bd

Geez, think I'll just stick to riding my trusty bike- unless, of course, another manufacture is willing to make certain accommodations worth my consideration.

Mike,
Like most other commenters, I admire your ethics, as well as your willingness to openly consider them. And as always, I enjoy and admire your writing. But I got this incredible sense of deja vu while reading this post. Seems like I recognized most of the bits from the opening down to the 'Manhattan' part. Am I wrong, or has much of this been posted before? Just curious, and I enjoyed it all over again (I think).

What about the other side of ethics when you are in the business of reviews: writing not just what the manufactuers want you to write, but writing what your readers want to hear, so they can feel better about their own choices?

One bleeding obvious example are a few of the UK magazines that rate equipment on a scale from 0 to 100%. But this rating is weighted, I assume by budget, so that Canon's 28-135IS might score 87% while their 24-70/2.8 scores 93%. Seriously, that little difference in quality?

The only thing I can imagine is that they want to be nice to their readers who can not afford the 24-70.

Would you keep buying a magazine that keeps telling you the the gear you can afford is only worth a 50% score? Didn't think so either.

Pretty unethical if you ask me.

"As far as readers go, it's caveat emptor all the way, baby. Same as it ever was, I'm afraid. It's a jungle out there. Step carefully, and be lucky."

If you don't take what ALL reviewers say with a grain of salt, then you deserve what you get. Read enough reviews and you MIGHT find where the salt actually lies. I'm all for full disclosure: Tell me about your junkets, tell me about your "loaner" equipment, tell me about money that changed hands, but then write the damned review and let ME decide whether it was worth my time or not. Let ME decide what I think about you as a photographer and as a man from reading your blog everyday.

Go take the trip to New York---I can't do it, so you do it for me. And tell me all about it; it's OK to let me know that it was paid for by someone else. That shouldn't stop you from doing it and sharing the experience with us here. Don't deprive us because of a "moral hiccup", if you have to see it that way. Ease up on yourself a bit; life's too damned short.

Rod G.

Well, this post , together with the post on "expensive" cameras, is a perfect reason why I am happy to subscribe to TOP and recommend to all your other readers who haven't, to subscribe,-after TOP, I check out another site, but I just can't be bothered downloading and listening to a 70 minute talking head video about a camera I'll never own-- no names-no lawsuits--after all, if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have discovered you-- there are other things I can do with my time and your blog fills my day with joy. More power to you Mike.

If one is reviewing stuff then more transparency is better than less transparency. Just say what happened.
eg "ABC gave me free access and interviews in their factory and nothing else" or "ABC gave me free access and interviews in their factory and paid my travel expenses"

Hi Mike,

As you are doing it right now is probably the right thing to do, but it's probably very hard to constantly face this dilemma: take bait and be unethical or decline the bait and feel silly.

Why not make it utterly easy for yourself and write the whole truth: "Company Y flew me in to visit their factory in T and on the night before the factory-tour I was invited to a lavish dinner with A and B. I was very impressed/not so very impressed/etc..."

Or "Company Y has sent me a printer to test and since printers cannot be restocked after being used, I get to decide what to do with it after my review. I normally donate printers to the local college, but this one I like so much that I surely will keep it."

I know it's unconventional and maybe naive, but maybe it's unconventional and naive enough for a blog-writer? ;-)

At the very worst, such openness might lead companies to stop tempting you by offering you freebies for reviewing their products...

Wonderful piece Mike you are an inspiration to us all[seriously]and I fully agree with your ideas on ethics,the world would certainly be a nicer place if there were more like you out there.
On the junkets to N.Y. as a loyal TOP follower I personally give you permission to partake provided you entertain us with a full account of the trips,this permission extends to all future such temptations by the way, you can look upon it as your duty to your loyal readers to experience these temptations in order that we can be protected from such evil.Go forth my boy and lake it on the chin for all our sakes.

Well, that was a read. And a half! I think this says as much about human nature, and business as it does about any particular aspect of photography reviewing. Nothing in life is free or without some form of agenda (intentional or not), and as photography equipment buyers, consumers and citizens we are daft if we believe otherwise, the onus is as much on us to do our homework. If we buy an expensive piece of equipment based on a single review we only have ourselves to blame. As far as TOP and your ethics are concerned, we can tell by the way you wear your heart on your sleeve and provide a wide variety of viewpoints that your either trustworthy and honest, or very clever and manipulative, joke, we know you are honest. I've always found in my own life if I am honest that maybe in the short term I will annoy people and lose out on things, but in the end people respect you and you get the things you want from like minded people or companies - what goes around comes around. I think this is true of TOP.

Conflict of interest is epidemic in our society. From Washington (the legislator-lobbyist revolving door, e.g.) to Wall Street (where to start -- the place is rife with conflicts) to Main Street (real estate brokers who act simultaneously as both the "seller's broker" and the "buyer's broker", e.g.) -- there's so much of it that one can hardly be accused of being cynical for attributing less-than-honest motives to others.

There's no cure, and the crutch of transparency / disclosure may be as good as we can hope for. Self-dealing, and favoring those who favor us, obviously runs deep in our grain.

Thanks, again, for an enlightening and honest discussion.

Good signals are cheap to send if they're honest and expensive to send if they're fake. Baring that happy ideal, good signals have a direct cost to the sender to send.

The usual example is the practice of antelopes leaping straight up before running away from the lion. The signal is "I am a healthy adult antelope; you can't catch me", and the cost is the delay in running away caused by the initial leap. If you're not a healthy adult antelope, and your leap looks somewhat lacking in spring, well, that's not good for you, which is the other part of the cost -- you really do have to be healthy to pull off the leap.

Signal, well.

Anything supported by advertising is for sale; it's the basic problem with the model. Online venues have a lot less capture than the print venues do; a combination of less time and they're so many of them.

The flip side of this is that a reputation for not being for sale—for saying what you actually believe and damn the economic consequences—is extremely valuable. The greater the pile of cash turned down, in kit and junkets, the stronger the signal that you really do say what you want, and that you're not for sale, and the bigger the amplification of your views to an audience that has decided they can trust you.

So, mostly, all that lost stuff is the signal cost that someone can take your opinions seriously as your opinions, which is great. It'd be a lot greater if it paid the bills, though.

Excellent article - as usual. There is a solution to the ever-present problem of gratuities in the workplace.

During my first month as a director of a national association based in Washington, D.C. I received - by FedEx - a First-Class, Round-Trip airline ticket to Brazil. Also included were hotel, transportation and eating accommodations. All of this provided by a world-renowned manufacturer with operations in Brazil. Being new on the job I asked the president of my association how to handle this situation. His response was: "Do you want to go to Brazil?" When I said "Yes" his reply was "Great. Go. But send the ticket and the other goodies back with a note saying you will be glad to attend - BUT - we pay our own way." He added, "If you can't eat it or drink it in one sitting do not accept it."

Good advice. And saves a world of explaining at some future point.

Chirpy

Mike,
I read your account on the vagaries of honest reviewing with great interest. If I use your insights I doubt the verdict of a great number of reviews a lot more than in the past. E.g if a publication does NEVER give a lower rating than a 7 on the scale from 1 tot 10.
However,I understand the difficulty of staying alive in a time of murderous competition.
One other point: Because of the growth of ordering with a VIRTUAL store in stead of buying at a REAL store where you can handle the stuff, lots of people are becoming dependent on printed / internet reviews and they WANT a verdict. And that's where camera makers want to influence us (and I can't blame them!) because to the reader the reviews are (supposedly) more unbiased than an advertorial.
So I think the process of evaluating the reviews without touching the camera will become a lot more difficult in the future.

Maybe long, but fascinating and easy to read all the way through. You are an excellent storyteller and explainer, Mike. I also admire your principles, priorities, and pluck, and have for a long time.

If it's any consolation, at least your experiences, and rare lapses, involved only camera equipment. Meanwhile, similar conflicts of interest and worse have been reported about, for example, the pharmaceutical industry, with truly dangerous consequences.

By that I do not mean to trivialize ethics in any field or walk of life. Ethics is a foundational and defining aspect of a society, and poisoning any part of the well has repercussions; but so does any act of courage and principle have value.

I agree that transparency and skepticism are the best answer, and one facilitated by new, more democratic media, such as blogs. It could be one reason why people are increasingly looking online and to blogs for information.

But let's face it, a great many glossy camera magazines and websites are about gear porn, and their fans aren't very picky about how it got there.

Then there's places like TOP. About as sexy as a workbench, but a reliable source of honest and useful information, insight, and skepticism. I look forward to the day that TOP has the resources and operating capital to purchase anything that you and your readers deem worthy of review. Is that an unreasonable expectation, considering TOP's rate of growth and value? I think not.

I am curious whether any of the larger magazines ever attempted to put a firewall between manufacturers and reviewers, for example designating some sort of liaison to exclusively deal with PR departments and promotions while forbidding reviewers to do so?

Mike,
It seems to me that the issue you are putting before your readers needs some reference to the many other fields (except photography) in which conflicts of interests are part of the action. Taking this track, the short term strategy seems to be trying to balance the various pressures, sometimes one against others. However, in the longer term, you need to build a professional culture to supplement the individual ethic and the organizational roles (such as editors). The way I see it, what you have written is the description of the need to professionalize the reviewers' role in photography. Why not start the project right there, in this very domain that you've created?

"Then there's places like TOP. About as sexy as a workbench"

Okay, this made me laugh.

As far as your question about the firewall, robert e, I've just been discussing this (cordially) with a fellow website owner, and he mentioned at one point that there's no wall between editorial and advertising on the web. My retort to that that of course there is--because the "wall" isn't really between one office and another, or one group of people or another--it's a mindset. (I should report that he didn't entirely agree with that.)

A reviewer just has to have the right mindset--know the rules, observe the customs, watch out for the pitfalls, disclose the pertinent info. It doesn't matter who he talks to about what at any other point in the day.

I do think there are conflicts of influence which could mean that a potential reviewer would need to recuse him- or herself from writing about a particular product--if he works for the company that made the product, to name one obvious example. I never reviewed a product from Camera Company X--that would have been totally inappropriate, given our history. And that's not punishment, either, because there are other reviewers, other magazines, other websites. It's not like I was depriving anyone of Camera Company X reviews. It just wouldn't have been fair for me to write one myself.

Mike

Mike - Thanks for your nuanced and conscientious reflection upon the thornier ethical pitfalls of the camera reviewing business, with appropriate emphasis on business. Writing it must have been its own reward, but I add my voice to the chorus of appreciation above.

I note that conflicts don't arise only from tangibles, such as comped consumables, meals, travel and lodging, quid-pro-quo media buys and gear acquisition on advantageous terms.

In an information-driven market place, for example, the granting of early and privileged access to a much-anticipated piece of equipment prior to public announcement amounts to an entitlement of considerable value in itself. As beneficiaries of such privileged access, early reviewers have an advantage over their competitors -- remember, it's a business -- in putting their comments before the public. Not entirely coincidentally, such an arrangement may also serve the marketing interests of the vendor.

This doesn't necessarily implicate the worthiness or substantive objectivity of any given review -- I'm not going to go there -- but it arguably raises the Caesar's wife standard. It certainly highlights the value of disclosure, transparency, and, as the case may require, self-recusal. Caesar did not believe the unsubstantiated rumours about his wife, but even the mere existence of controversy caused him to act as though the rumours had merit, lest his own reputation be tarnished. Roman politics was a business too, and business rests upon reputation. And sometimes a lady in question (not you, Mike) doth protest too much -- but that's the subject of another drama.

It's certainly long. I did not find myself tired of the subject when I reached the end.

I never doubted it was a complicated and difficult issue. I now know more about it, more about what actually goes on, on both sides, than I did before, and that's all to the good.

Thank you.

I think I'll go along with a couple of commenters who have said or suggested that, in the age of individual self-publication, blogging, etc., the ethical standards of the individual doing the blogging are if anything more important than before.

Mike,

You said "I've been wondering—are the ethical requirements really the same for a personal blog as they are for a magazine?"

Well they will be soon if the FTC has their way. See the link

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/13/technology/internet/13blog.html

Just search FTC Bloggers Disclosure and you'll find tons of stuff.

I do a few small blogs for fun on various subjects, and have already put Disclosure statements on one of them. Statements will go up on the rest eventually.

For myself, yes I would like to know if a reviewer or a website has been given special consideration.

For one food blogger I know of, who I shall not disclose, everything she receives is rated as Fantastic, even if it sucks. She's fearful of discontinued relationships with companies because of bad or even just lackluster reviews. I am personally hoping the IRS gets wind of her.


Happy to make you laugh, Mike.

What I wish I'd said: "TOP: about as sexy as a workbench, and just as useful."

One thing that I feel isn't getting much attention in this discussion is the reader/consumer. The culture you wrote about will change when, and perhaps only when, there is pressure for change from consumers. While ethical publishers, editors and reviewers can lead and educate, the consumers have the power, as expressed with their voices, eyeballs and dollars.

That can only happen if consumers are educated about the problem. You've made a great contribution toward that end here, Mike, and I hope you spark a wave of discussion and thinking across the photography world.

At the other end, Uri has a great idea--maybe it is time to formulate and formalize some kind of professional standard. Independent bloggers, associations like DIWA Labs, professional photographers associations, retailers, maybe even the less influential manufacturers, all strike me as motivated candidates for a coalition along those lines.

One more good reason: In this, the age of DIY publishing, I suspect that there are at least as many honest reviewer-editors who would welcome professional guidance and peer support as there are ethically challenged ones who are mostly in it for the "perks".

Congratulation on your article Mike. I hope it has reviewers reflecting on their own moral fortitude.

Personally, as far as future disclosures go, I plan to do things no differently than I've done in the past. I have a general policy that I've written about more than once -- no free equipment or supplies over about $100, and, yes, I do keep the stuff, and, yes, being able to buy at dealer cost is legit. I don't feel the need to discuss the specifics for each product that I review nor repeat this in ech review. I've got a 30 year track record and reputation. If that's not enough for readers, screw'em, and I mean it. It's their loss, not mine, if they don't take my good advice.

I suppose I could be bribed. It would have to be a really good bribe. If, say, Leica were to offer to give me an S2 kit, I'd be willing to give up being a camera reviewer and just become a spokesperson for Leica.

I should live so long. And be healthy besides.


~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
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-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 
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Mike,

Great article. By the way, the trip to Paris (or really epic journeys to Africa and Asia) and all the royal treatment is the norm for motoring journalists. Truth is that any reviewer who wants to come back with a good story and decent photos cannot remember any of the fancy restaurants, the business class flights or (sad but, true) the... "souvenirs".

Every real professional is so stressed to get the job done that he/she is simply working non- stop. In the hotel in the evening, the only thought is whether the light will be good next morning and the car in the "right" color.

Of course serious reviewers/publishers will repeatedly PAY to organise an exclusive review simply because they think it is important.

The "bad apples" (or hobby-journos according to my German colleagues) are far too many in car reviewing "business". Which is a shame since there are also exceptional reviewers around the globe. The big problem IMHO is that the complete absense of ethics, in some cases/colleagues, dissapoints readers and gives companies the right to behave accordingly.

I guess writers/reviewers should realise how demanding this job is. If they cannot resist all the "temptations" they should either quit or work in PR of manufacturers. Of course the support form the publisher is also crucial - an established magazine would never risk (I think) the status obtained through the years with publishing one favourable review after the other for a specific company. And in the end it is all about dignity: I have heard comments about "journalists" from car companies people that show complete lack of respect, and for a reason... High-mindedness or not, there is only one rule: Do your best, NEVER get freebies and be completely clear in your opinion abaout the product - car, camera or canoe.

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