Recently, there was some social media discussion among book bloggers and reviewers over the potential breach of ethics regarding a prominent book vlogger called Christine Riccio who did not issue a proper disclaimer over the promoted content of her video reviews. While a brief line in the text description of at least four of her videos noted that the publishers had “sponsored” them, there was no mention of that in the video itself, except for a vague moment of being asked to talk about the book in question in one. Many, including myself, considered this to be a major conflict of interest. While she claims all opinions are her own, there’s nothing written or said by Riccio, who has over 100,000 subscribers, on what she had to do as part of the sponsored deal or what the publisher expected from her as part of this arrangement.
It’s one thing to be a blogger who receives advance reader copies of a book (as I do, and I always make a point of including this fact in my review), it’s quite another to have a direct relationship with the publisher regarding the bulk of the review itself. Indeed, this issue is particularly relevant to Riccio because her videos’ descriptions used to note that she had received the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Now, that line has been replaced by one on sponsored content. Given that the new YouTube rules state that such disclaimers must be displayed prominently, it calls into question Riccio’s honesty and integrity as a reviewer, especially since she is an adult reviewing YA to a largely young audience.
Riccio is not the first in the book blogging sphere to be accused of crossing ethical lines. A number of reviewers have faced such questions regarding not only their possible conflicts of interest with publishers but with their closeness to the authors they review. One of the positives about book blogging is the relationships you build with others, including writers, which has become easier now that social media plays such a prominent part. It allows you to make great friends, participate in wide reaching and varied discussions about your passion, and to hear the kind of voices you never would have been exposed to otherwise. I myself am very fortunate to have befriended a number of authors online, with whom I enjoy great discussions about books, the industry and all manner of unrelated topics. However, this does make things murkier when it comes to fulfilling my duty as a critic when their work is involved.
Usually, I just don’t review their books, considering the conflict of interest to be too big an obstacle towards me giving as objective an opinion as I can. However, I am about to finish reading a book that I have thoroughly enjoyed, one that I intend to give a pretty positive review to, and that was written by a friend. I will note this very prominently in my review as well as the fact that I received my copy of the book from the author, but I still worry that the usual questions will come up. Have I crossed a line there? Will my integrity as a reviewer be called into question? Is my opinion of the book completely separate from my opinion of the person who wrote it, is that even possible, and can anyone offer up a 100% objective opinion? I’ve been asking myself these questions a lot and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully be able to answer some of them, but I know there are simple rules I can follow to make sure the inherent fairness of the system remains. If you are friends with an author, it’s only fair that you state that upfront.
Publishing isn’t the only field looking to widen its promotional power to the regular readers who seldom call themselves critics in the way those at large publications do. It’s a smart move since readers of certain genres don’t tend to turn to the New York Times or the Guardian for their reviews, mainly because such publications seldom bother to cover anything outside of the literary circles with anything beyond scorn and confusion. Blogging is a more wide reaching form of word of mouth, from your intended audiences outwards. Of course bloggers want to get involved with that. It’s fun doing what we do, but the lines between professional and questionable that used to be clearly defined have started to fade away, or rather be wiped out.
Look at the world of video games journalism for a similar story. To give one particularly infamous example, gaming journalist Geoff Keighley engaged in a cross-promotion for Halo 4 surrounded by Mountain Dew and Doritos, who were offering a special points deal for gamers who bought their products. The image of Keighley, arguably the most prominent person in his field, sitting po-faced surrounded by an obvious promotion, made many uncomfortable and raised questions about the ethics involved in journalism in gaming. These questions came to the forefront when it emerged that journalists at the British Games Media Awards, supposedly for the best journalists in the gaming industry, were being encouraged to tweet with promotional hashtags in the hopes of winning a PS3. Then there’s the now infamous case of Jeff Gerstmann, who was fired from GamesSpot for giving a negative review to a site advertiser’s game. Suffice to say, the website’s reputation hasn’t quite recovered since then.
We haven’t reached levels like that with book blogging, and I doubt we will for a number of reasons, but the rise of promoted content will undoubtedly continue, and that will open many more doors over the ethics of what we do and whether our words carry much weight when the shadow of business obligation looms overhead. Publishers will continue to look for new ways to publicise the work they release, and they’ll become more creative as they do so because they have to in order to keep up with the ever changing industry. Bloggers will be a big part of that, and that’s a good thing, but if we want to participate in this with transparency, honesty and integrity then we have to clearly establish where the lines are drawn. Your readers deserve at least that much.
EDIT: After reaching out to Riccio for comment on her practices on Twitter and clarification on what a sponsored post is, we received this response (pieced together from tweets):
it means that I’m paid to include the books in my videos but i’m very selective about the books i choose. i only accept sponsorships for ones i think ( i do extensive research) / know i’m going to like, and all my opinions are honest and my own.
After asking if she felt her posts met the requirements of the FTC regarding sponsored pieces and full disclosure, she added:
I’m not aware of how bloggers do it, but this is what i’ve seen YouTubers do for years. I’ve started stating out loud when a vid is sponsored & will continue to do so in the future. I’ve done research & this is completely within FTC guidelines.
More as this story develops.