FTC endorsement rules were inevitable

A brief history of journalistic ethics reveals why FTC action on endorsements was inevitable.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

Susan Krashinksy interviewed me for the Globe and Mail's coverage of the FTC endorsement rules. She quoted me as saying:

“If people are promoting products purely because they're getting a freebie and it's not being disclosed, that's bad for consumers,” Mr. Koman said, and it also tarnishes bloggers' claims of authenticity.

That's a problem because of the sheer number of bloggers out there, some of whom are paragons of ethical behaviour and others … not so much.

“The rules are a good thing. … It's hard to see how everybody in their PJs can self-regulate,” Mr. Koman said.

If I can expand on that bit about self-regulation. In my phone call with Krashinksy, I compared the situation with the evolution of the news industry. There was a time when newspapers were literally bought and paid for by corporations (the railroads). There was no advertising: revenue came from corporate payments. Later, papers switched to an advertising model but the editorial was essentially controlled by the railroads and mining companies. The age of yellow journalism ended corporate control and launched the era of sensationalistic, market-based editorial (give the people what they want) yet there was still massive corruption in the form of meals, drinks, cash, favors, women, etc. The news industry reacted to all this by adopting a code of ethics. Newspapers enforced rules about accepting favors and free entertainment, established separation of church and state (news and advertising), embraced editorial standards that favored balanced presentation of differing viewpoints, etc. The industry was able to do this unilaterally because it was a private men's club with relatively few members - and they were institutional members. The blogosphere is everyone and it's noninstitutional. How does "blogging" decide to self-regulate? Every attempt to get buy-in to standards and disclosure rules have utterly failed. Orgs like ZD can decide to publish disclosures but that has no impact on the real center of blogging, which is individuals "in their PJs." Thus, external regulation is necessary and was inevitable once PR firms and marketers discovered the power of influential bloggers.

Editorial standards