Is it important or irrelevant with “disclosure” of free samples etc?
Sparked by a twitter discussion and by yesterday’s text on French wine bloggers I though it could (possibly) be interesting to bring up this issue with “disclosure” again. “Disclosure” is mostly interpreted as that when you write about a wine you say “I received this wine as a free sample”. It can also apply to other things, like sponsored trips to wine regions etc.
Especially in the US the reaction to this question seems to be “of course you must do disclosure”. I believe that there is even a law that stipulates that it must be done (for wine blogs, but not for wine magazines or other things than wine if I remember correctly).
In my view the question is more subtle and the answer is less obvious.
What’s the point?
The first things to think about is perhaps: “What is the point with disclosure?” and, “What effect will it have?”
The simple answer to this is perhaps that disclosure takes away any risk of perceived corruption. By “disclosing” the writer can be taken more seriously and can be seen as more trustworthy.
But is this so?
Let’s say that you write a disclosure when you do a wine review: “I received this wine as a free sample”. What should the reader make of that?
#1. Should the reader think like this?: “The writer received the wine as a free gift so I can not quite trust his judgement on this wine. He is probably biased since the wine was given to him so the review is more positive than what it would have been otherwise.”
#2. Or should the reader think like this?: “I trust the writer on this review even though he received the wine as a free sample. The review is still relevant although the wine was a gift.”
If you go with the argument #1 then I would ask: can you at all trust that writer? If his objectivity is so easily biased by a free sample, can you really trust him to have any good judgement in any other situation?
If you go with the argument #2 then I would ask you this: If you do trust the writer’s judgment and is reasonably confident that he does not give a positive review just because the wine was a gift, then what difference does a disclosure make?
It is all about writer ethics
In my view disclosure is next to irrelevant. It does not hurt to have it but it really does not serve much useful purpose. Either you believe that the writer is trustworthy, unbiased and follows good journalistic ethics. And then disclosure makes no difference. Or you don’t trust the writer’s ethics. And then a disclosure doesn’t make any difference either really since you are rarely “ethical sometimes”.
So, my conclusion is this: Disclosure is unimportant. What counts and what is important is the writer’s personal and journalistic ethics.
Yes, it makes things more difficult, because you have to make your own judgment about the writer and his trustworthiness. But who said that there should be any easy solution?
What do we do in practice at BKWine Magazine?
Here are our own ethics and disclosure principles: Disclosure
You can find it in the menus under About > BKWine Magazine.
Sometimes we do write a disclosure and say “we received these wines as samples”, “this article is based on a trip sponsored by XYZ”, or “this is a report from a tasting organised by ABC” or similar. But just as often we don’t.
Either you trust that we write truthfully or you don’t. A disclosure statement will not make any difference for that.
In reality, all professional wine writing relies on free samples, free tastings, free discovery trips to wine regions etc. You would have virtually no professional wine writing at all if you would refuse all that. Anyone wine writer who says he does not do that is not truthful.
That is no different from any other kind of journalism. Do you think that sports journalists pay their entry tickets?
So do we get lots and lots of freebies?
In reality we actually get very little free stuff. Here are the main categories.
Free wine samples
We get wine samples very rarely. Less (far less) than once a month. This is unfortunate and we would like to get more because it will allow us to report on more wines. (Wine producers take note: We are happy to receive samples! ; – ) )
Free wine tastings
This is the most frequent “benefit” we get. There are quite often wine tastings organised by marketing organisations, wine importers, wine regions or even wine producers that we go to. Very useful. Sometimes they lead to an article, sometimes not. But they are always useful as a part of ongoing development and education.
Free wine trips
It happens but it is rare that we receive invitations to press trips. They are invariably very useful but you have to take into consideration that it was a sponsored trip if and when you write about it.
The big benefit we have at BKWine is that we are also a wine tour organiser so we arrange a lot of wine tours ourselves, and can then choose both the destinations and the wineries we visit independently. Very few wine writers have that luxury. All in all we visit some 200 to 300 wineries every year.
I guess that one reason for that we get relatively few freebies is that we “fall through the cracks” (or “between two stools”). We are not part of the French wine establishment, we rarely write in French media, so people here in France generally ignore us (although we are part of the French wine writers association, APV). Nor are we part of the Swedish wine writers’ clique; we are far away from Sweden (based in Paris) and we are not members of the Swedish wine writers association. And the other countries we don’t even need to think of.
So now when you know that we do not systematically do disclosure, do you trust our writing any less?
What is your view on the issue of disclosure?
This post is also available in: Swedish