"Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do."
~ Potter Stewart
A few weeks ago, I was on stage with three wonderful women in front of a full conference room at the annual Blissdom Canada blogging conference. We were speaking on a much ignored, yet incredibly important topic in the blogging world.
It's a heavy topic to be sure, but it is time for it to take centre stage and be openly spoken about at conferences and amongst ourselves. Together with my fellow panel members, Elan Morgan, Shannon McKarney and Karen Green, we touched on the surface of this iceberg of a topic. In hindsight, what I think we all realize now, is that a one hour "Ethics in Blogging" panel was just not enough time and we could have easily made this into a 2-3 hour workshop. That being said, I wanted to follow up with some key points from our discussion that day and some of the points that we didn't have time to delve in to.
1. Have your own Code of Ethics.
This doesn't have to be a pages long manifesto or a list of black and white rules that you must follow at all times, but it is a good idea to have something written down. It also doesn't have to be something that is published on your blog, although you can totally do that if you want. Think of it more as something for you. As your moral blogging compass to keep you on the track that you have set out for yourself in this online, over-sharing, publishing, and marketing world. It can be a list of companies that you will (or more importantly, ones that you will NOT work with), how/if/when you use and share pictures of your kids, yourself, or your spouse/partner online. The kinds of stories and topics that are taboo for you. For example, I personally tend to stay away from writing about vaccines and circumcision-need I say more?. This code is often made up of all the thoughts that we always have at the back of our minds, but writing them down and having them tucked away in a drawer in your desk or on your office bulletin board, or as an easily accessible file, can help keep you on track.
2. Get yourself a third party "Gut-checker".
Think of this person or group of people as your real life spell checker, not just for grammar, but for your content and any potential consequences it may have as well. We all have a tendency to get caught up in our own worlds (and words) and sometimes, can't see the forest for the trees. As writers, getting our words and feelings out on the page or screen is very often how we deal with situations in our lives. BUT, before hitting that publish button in a fit of frustration or ranty rantingness (totally a word BTW), have someone you trust, who knows you and the world that you live in, both online and off, give you that third party perspective. This can go a long way towards saving you from embarrassment, haters, hurt feelings and burnt bridges. Karen made reference to the "feel the fear and do it anyways" philosophy of life, but sometimes, feeling the fear, listening to that little nagging voice in your head and getting a second opinion might actually be your best course of action.
3. Talk to your kids about what you do.
Tell them that you are a story writer. That you write stories about them, about your life and if it is the case, about the products and services that you use. Tell them why people want to read your stories and why it is important for you to write them. Many of us are leaving a legacy behind for our children via our blogs and online writing. Make sure it is a good one. Be respectful of the little people in your life and their rights. When my son had recovered from his sudden and critical illness this past summer and I was finally able to write about it, I sat him down and talked to him. I asked him if it was okay that I wanted to write about what happened to him and to all of us. I showed him the pictures that I wanted to use in the post and he had final approval for the ones in it. I explained how so many people, from so many places had been praying and sending us love and get well messages while he was in the hospital and that this was a way for me to say thank you and to let them all know that he was getting better every day. It has opened a whole new door of communication between my children and I, and as they get older and become more aware of their own online presences, these conversations will be vital to our relationships and to my writing as well.
4. Do disclosure right.
**Full disclosure: I don't really do a whole lot of sponsored posts or product review posts.**
What I do though, is read a lot of blog posts from a lot of different kinds of bloggers. I am a consumer. A consumer of the content that is written and often times a consumer of the products being written about. And as such, I can tell you this, consumers do not like to be duped. Do not write a sentimental post about the fabulous vacation you've just had with your beautiful family, complete with all the pictures, the travel tips, the great amenities and then at the very bottom of the post let me know that the whole trip was sponsored and part of a marketing initiative. Do not write a heart wrenching post about a charity or socially conscious issue you are extremely passionate about, only to say in the last paragraph that it is part of a bigger campaign and then ask for support for said campaign. This kind of "disclosure" is akin to reading one of those great viral stories that get sent around via email or on Facebook and then at the end, implore or shame you into "sharing" it with 10 of your closest friends or else a pox will fall on your household. It is simply bad form. Out of respect for your readers, the ones who are part of the reason you are getting paid to do this work, please put all disclosure statements at the very top of your posts. In the end, you'll get more respect (and loyalty) from said readers. For a couple of examples of what I mean, check out what Jessica at Momma's Gone City did here or what Heather did with this post at Dooce. I read and loved both of those posts, because I love both of these ladies and the writing that they do, but I knew going in that there was a product being talked about. Let your readers make the decision to continue reading after your sponsorship or product review disclosure, don't fool them into it.
5. DO NOT STEAL! EVER!
It sucks that this even has to be said, but it really does. No, you can not Google a picture of an elephant and then just take the one that looks best from the images that you find in your search. No, you can not copy a complete blog post and repost it to a different site, even if you give credit to the author. No, you can not download photos from Facebook that are not yours and use them in your posts without permission. Copyright exists on a kind of spectrum and it is a good idea to read up and get a good handle on Fair Use and Copyright basics, so that you don't run into any trouble. And understand that the laws are somewhat different in Canada and the US. To be safe, take your own photos for your posts, or buy them from a stock photo site, or check the Creative Commons photos on flickr, which you can use, but require credit to the creator. And above all else, do not steal someone's words or ideas. As writers, these words are who we are, they are the product that we create, the stories that we tell and they are ours.
I have way more to say about this year's expereince at Blissdom Canada, but I'll save that for another day. And there is so much more to say on the topic of blogging and ethics that this post could go on and on and on. What I am very happy about it that this conversation is happening and as the internet evolves, so must we in the way we behave online, how we share our content and the responsibility we have to both ourselves and our readers.
What more would you add to the conversation about ethics in blogging?
Photo Credit: Anna Epp Photography