Recently PepsiCo quietly bought the rights to blog about nutrition on a highly respected science blog network. Outraged bloggers and readers at ScienceBlogs said—well, things I can't repeat here—and dubbed the debacle PepsiGate.
As you may have guessed, the blog quickly vanished, but the resulting debate provides insight into some ethical considerations around the so-called new media: the world of online citizen-based journalism.
Lesson #1: You might be a journalist.
When print and broadcasting were limited by access to expensive technology or funds to run a media organization, journalists were a self-selecting group with a clear code of ethics. Today, anyone can broadcast content from their home computer, and many ordinary people have unwittingly entered the realm of journalism. Not all are aware of the ethical ramifications of their position.
“Scienceblogs.com has always been the project of the Seed Media Group, thus at least a self-designated media organization. But since the moment our blogs got indexed in Google News we de facto became writers for a media organization. I am not sure some of my SciBlings really understood the importance of that day and how that changed who we are and what we do.
Most of us here do not consider ourselves to be journalists or even have goals of wanting to become journalists. A few of us are. And a few of us are not sure what we are any more. But by virtue of being searchable on Google News we are journalists, whether we want it or not.”
Perhaps not all blogging is journalism. Some bloggers are paid for their content, while others write for free. There are journalist-bloggers, and bloggers who have paying jobs outside of the publication world. But former ScienceBlogs contributor Janet Stemwedel does not believe that the line between ordinary blogging and de facto journalism is a simple question of whether you want to be a journalist. In her own farewell post she wrote:
“I know some are of the view that the new-ish medium of blogging is a blank slate that need not be bound by the old rules of the old media, or that bloggers are not journalists (especially if their day jobs are something other than being journalists) and thus needn't worry about the ethical constraints the J-school crowd take to be important. But I'm starting to wonder if bloggers can really claim that much freedom to self-identify their roles when for practical purposes their writing is functioning as journalism.”
Recognizing the shift in media outlets, the FTC now requires bloggers to adhere to a disclosure policy where they are upfront about any affiliations with companies or free products they receive. (Incidentally, radio broadcasters are now required to do the same. Apparently some folks are not as astute as my husband, who upon hearing one local DJ hawk diet pill after diet pill remarked, “Just how much did this woman weigh to begin with? She's lost 20 pounds with every product on the market!”)
Lesson #2: Your brand is no longer your own.
When Seed Media Group launched ScienceBlogs, they brought together 15 of the top science bloggers under one network and brand. Over time, the company invited more bloggers, with the English network peaking at around 90 blogs. For many of these bloggers, an “advertorial” blog like PepsiCo's Food Frontiers undermined the credibility of their own blogs—and by extension, themselves—simply by being in the same network. Blogger David Dobbs, who also writes for publications like the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Scientific American Mind, explained:
“...I cannot help but feel complicit in this if I stay.
PepsiCo wants this spot, and can gain from it, only because the bloggers here have sought to write genuinely as individuals trying to communicate something genuinely arising from their own minds and work. But PepsciCo — I speak of the company, not of the individuals slated to write for Food Frontiers, of whom I know little — clearly has a different agenda, which is to use the whatever credibility that the bloggers here generate for the site to improve the company's standing and credibility about food. That is a job they should do with their food.”
For contributors who regarded themselves as “Sciblings” or “ScienceBloggers,” a fundamental change to the ScienceBlogs brand warranted their input and agreement, not merely their last-minute notification.
That's because an assault on a new media brand can be an assault on the contributors themselves.
Lesson #3: You can't buy a seat in a meritocracy.
For many ScienceBlogs contributors and readers, perhaps the biggest betrayal was that Seed Media Group had undermined the meritocratic selection process that many held sacred. Science writer Martin Robbins, who appears to have coined the term “PepsiGate,” explained why meritocracy and seats-for-sale do not generally coexist:
“To its bloggers and readers, ScienceBlogs was always a meritocracy built by top science bloggers. They attracted the best science bloggers from the US and increasingly around the world, and allowed a community to organically develop in which everyone had a stake...
...It should be immediately obvious that selling a seat at this table damages the brand, whoever it is. It's like watching King Arthur hand-pick eleven knights of the Round Table, and then sell the twelfth seat on Ebay. If anyone can buy themselves a Seed Blog, then one of the main reasons to blog there - the prestige - is gone. And the effect of that is doubled when King Arthur himself doesn't bother to tell the knights until some rich kid in Gucci armour wanders in the room asking where the bar is.”
Later in the same post, Robbins offers some ideas for how paying companies could blog at ScienceBlogs without undermining the meritocracy, though none look as profitable for Seed Media Group as selling advertorial blogs.
In this leaked internal-only email brief, Seed Media Group CEO Adam Bly initially defended the decision to offer a seat to PepsiCo by appealing to the need for dialogue with corporate scientists. “It is our hope that the Xeroxes and Bell Labs of the future will have a real presence on [ScienceBlogs] – that they will learn from our readers and we will learn from them,” Bly said.
Bly forgot that even a corporation can't buy credibility in a merit-based culture. If companies want a seat at the ScienceBlogs table, the general sentiment is that they should earn it.
Lesson #4: The Internet never forgets.
The leaked email leads us to our fourth lesson, which involves transparency. Shortly after Bly responded to the PepsiGate scandal by pulling the Food Frontiers blog from ScienceBlogs, science journalist Gaia Vince responded with an “ain't no surprise to me” op-ed in The Guardian alleging that Seed magazine, another subset of Seed Media Group, declined to publish one of her columns because it would offend a potential advertiser:
“I received an email from [a Seed magazine] editor asking for more columns and explaining that they wouldn't be publishing the Bhopal piece because it was critical of Dow Chemical, which now owns the company that caused the gas leak in 1984, and that Seed was seeking an advertising contract with Dow.”
From there it delves into an ugly he-said/she-said that's enough to make a reader wonder about the integrity of media organizations everywhere. But the point is that like the Mafia, the Internet never forgets. Transparency is your friend. Be open and upfront. Don't hide behind justifications when you make a mistake. You get the idea.
Lesson #5: Sorry, Seth, but it's pretty hard to be a linchpin.
In the wake of the mass exodus at ScienceBlogs, the old network lives on. A sizable chunk of core members has left, while other popular bloggers remain. Many former contributors banded together to form a new, independent science blog network—with an ethics code to their liking—at Scientopia. And PepsiCo still has its Food Frontiers blog in a dusty corner of the Web, where the requisite PR and legal teams carefully look over the R&D scientists' posts.
Welcome to the new media.