Emerging Tech investigate

A note about editorial ethics and product reviews

Since TechRepublic is all about helping technology professionals find transformative solutions, we value audience trust and hold editorial ethics in the highest regard.

TechRepublic recently learned that one of our freelance writers took a payment from a technology vendor to write a review of the vendor's product. This is obviously a major breech of editorial ethics. As a result, the writer is no longer a TechRepublic contributor and all of the articles the person wrote for TechRepublic in the past have been unpublished from the site.

We take editorial ethics extremely seriously and we will never tolerate behavior that clearly crosses the line and compromises the trust that we have with our audience. TechRepublic is all about helping technology professionals find and implement the best solutions to make organizations run better, faster, and more efficiently. As such, it's absolutely critical that our members trust us to be a neutral third-party observer of the IT industry.

That's why we've taken immediate and drastic action in this case, even though the product review in question was generally even-handed and the author wrote many other useful tips for TechRepublic. Unfortunately, taking a payment from a vendor negates all of that and will never be tolerated.

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

29 comments
stevec
stevec

Sorry to be pedantic, but I think the word we mean to use is "breach."

Pronounce
Pronounce

As a reader it's hard to know what is and what isn't true behind the curtain that is our naivete about the inner workings of any organization included TechRepublic's. We don't know how much sway ad dollars have. We don't know how much animosity there is between editors and writers for any number of reasons. The issues are too numerous and varied for someone outside the actual incident to know the truth. But we know money talks, and we know the media is staffed by humans who need money. So in general we assume there is always a lack of bias. And I think if you were to put yourself in our shoes you'd understand what I mean. Plus for those of us who've read about AOL, Huffington Post, and Micheal Arrington of TechCrunch. We think those in authority who make the rules break the rules only to punish those who can't defend themselves in print.

gorgo54
gorgo54

I would hope that someday you can take it further. A Lot of online and print reviewers get equipment to review, NDA's to sign and are often in early on the process or the last 6 months before roll out. Such often provides a reporter or reviewer with a lot of inside info that he/she can use to scoop the competition or enhance a related business. After going over the Apple FCP X situation with two such reviewers who had a 6 month NDAs it seems to me that such a situation is still too close a relationship with the manufacturers. One ended up literally a fan boi, well beyond the bounds of objectivity and the other had not too few sleepless nights. Perhaps you should review your process and maybe insist upon more detached reviews.

seanferd
seanferd

Best wishes to everyone for the future.

Justin James
Justin James

... but I'm glad that such strong action was taken. If we don't have our integrity, then we might as well not be doing this. J.Ja

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

I appreciate any help I can get! You are correct and as it was late and I was tired I can't even blame spell check on this one... :)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

But as a writer for TechRepublic, I have never been asked by anyone in TechRepublic to favor one view over another or to color the facts in any way. I don't even know who advertises with TechRepublic. My editor corrects my mistakes, but she doesn't alter the meaning of my articles at all. I feel free to call things as I see them -- if I didn't, I wouldn't continue writing for them.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

the breach of ethics is related to a conflict of interest. Per Jason it sounds like Techrepublic does insist on reviews untainted by COI. In the case you present it isn't so much COI, but a breach of trust/contract. Trust means there is nothing wrong with your business receiving benefit from such a relation, but not at the expense of your partner. I agree with apotheon that it would be nigh well impossible to analyze and review a new product (and provide valuable feedback to the developer) without physical access.

apotheon
apotheon

Any such interactions with vendors should be disclosed explicitly within the article. I wrote reviews of a couple of books for TechRepublic -- one of which is "A Practical Guide to Linux Commands, Editors, and Shell Programming", and the other of which is "The Book of PF". In both cases, I reviewed the second edition. The URIs for these two articles here on TR are: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/opensource/?p=2413 http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/security/?p=5030 They're both positive reviews. I was paid for neither. I was asked to allow myself to be quoted in the frontmatter of one of them (the Linux book), based on a glowing review I gave the first edition of that book on Amazon years ago; I was given a copy of the book as a "thank you" with no expectation of the review I ended up writing for TechRepublic. I was asked to review the other book, and given a copy of the new edition, but no requests were made about the content of the review. The key to what differentiates these book reviews from the sorts of reviews where one gets paid for a review is that I was in neither case asked to give a positive review, there was no actual money involved, and I explicitly shared the whole story in each case, right there in the article. I have never been accused of any bias in these articles, as far as I'm aware. I have, however, been accused of bias and (entirely nonexistent) industry ties in cases where I offered a negative assessment of a given corpporation or piece of software. This includes being both accused of having a personal vendetta against Microsoft and being a Microsoft shill, on separate occasions only weeks apart within a period of writing (more and more regularly) for TechRepublic for nearly half its existence. The problem with disallowing all contact with a company is that you then effectively end up disallowing the ability to provide news and reviews. If all pertinent interactions are disclosed in explicit detail, preferably within the text of the article, I see no problem with things like getting a free copy of whatever is under review. Even time-limited NDAs might be acceptable, if the existence of the NDA is not disallowed as material for the article. The more we simply disallow, the more people are going to look for loopholes. If there is a requirement of 100% disclosure, however, the reader is made fully aware of any potential conflicts of interest, and can make informed decisions about the article. (edit: clarification)

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

I like that they have added that to the articles. While all my "product reviews" have been over in Geekend, I've not let my professional and personal relationships affect my commentary. And I would never take money from anyone to write a favorable review. If you take money from a business to write about their product, then you are a copy writer for advertising. I am in agreement that I respect Jason and the entire TR staff for their dedication to ethical activity and am honored they've let me associate with them.

TelcoChuck
TelcoChuck

I am very glad that this site has exhibited some of the ethics I learned may years ago, I find the surprise refreshing! I do feel sorry for the former contributor and do wish him / her the best. I also applaud TechRepublic for the demonstration of ethics. Maybe this will be a trend in other sites also?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I don't know the case -- perhaps the person in question didn't realize what they were doing was unethical -- but I'm glad that TechRepublic has no tolerance for any breach of journalistic ethics.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

since breech is spelled correctly, even if it's the wrong word. BTW, have you seen that movie, "The britches of Madison County?" :p ;)

apotheon
apotheon

I have never been asked to do so, either -- and, like you, I don't pay attention to who advertises with TR, though right now I see an IBM ad, and I vaguely recall having seen some Microsoft ads. Anyone who thinks I'm taking money to give Microsoft positive reviews hasn't been reading very closely, anyway. In about half a dozen years of writing literally hundreds of articles for TechRepublic (edit: averaging something like one every 4.5 days -- more often toward the end, less often toward the beginning), my experience with regard to reviews and expressing my own views has not varied one whit from what you describe. The few times I have been asked to alter the content and views in my articles, there have been zero correlations with any vendors, products, or service providers that I discerned.

Justin James
Justin James

... are the only comments that rankle me. I've had the same experience, where in successive weeks I've been accused of "shilling" for Microsoft and Apple, or Microsoft and Google, or whatever bizarre pairing of competitors, because I had the audacity to say something nice or negative about a product... and I try my best to only use non-opinion, provable statements (and mark opinions as such). That said, I've discovered a few things about disclosure. First, disclosures tend to not be as obvious as you and I make them. I know too many writers who feel that a tiny link buried in their bio is ample disclosure, knowing full well that no one will ever see it. Secondly, many writers don't disclose everything. I know for a *fact* (because they told me directly) that there are writers who have accepted trips from vendors to go to conferences and conventions but do not feel the need to disclose it when writing about those conferences and conventions, because no money exchanged hands... never mind the fact that the travel and accommodations expenses the vendor covered were valued at hundreds if not thousands of dollars. To me, that is completely unacceptable. And sadly, that seems to be common practice for vendors. In the last few years, I've received countless offers of trips (not just free entry to a convention as a reporter, but the travel/lodging fees on the vendor's dime... some were even overseas trips!). Lately though, I've had a number of offers of outright payment to write articles. It is always couched in some sort of indirect language that is designed for you to not feel like they are bribing you. I understand it; in an increasingly crowded and noisy environment, it is hard to get attention and a few reviews on sites like TechRepublic can make or break a product or a company. At the same time, any company that chooses to do business like this is one that I am immediately cautious about. How many other reviews in the press of their products were compensated? Are their astroturf blog posts about them? What other business practices do they cut corners on? Etc. J.Ja

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Sooner or later they'll have semantic match checking, as a spin-off of Machine Translation. After all, the first step of translating something, is to understand the meaning.

apotheon
apotheon

I fear the appearance of "culture context check" features in word processor applications, to go with "spell check" and "grammar check" features.

apotheon
apotheon

About half of good engineering is removing impediments. About another half is automation. Automation already exists by default, in spades, in an economic market; all that remains is removing impediments.

apotheon
apotheon

The subject of conflicts of interest is one of keen interest to me, as a bit of an ethical theorist and economic engineer at heart. The "economic engineer" part might sound odd, coming from a free market economic individualist, but there it is.

apotheon
apotheon

That's my experience, too.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I bet a lot of generally ethical companies would be happy to pay for frank public reviews of their products, but if they pay someone directly they could never be sure of objectivity, no matter how much they insist on it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

TechRepublic writers are paid to do product reviews -- but they're paid by TechRepublic (CBS Interactive), not the product's vendor. That should mean that the market pressure of that payment is directed towards producing a fine journalistic result, rather than trying to sell the product.

apotheon
apotheon

I think a funding firewall, aka "Chinese wall", approach to funding product testing might work reasonably well. A middleman organization constituted to fund in-depth product testing and reviews could be chartered to direct no more than, say, 40% of its testing and review funding toward vendor-requested reviews. All review directives offered to testers would be given in the same format with the same requirements and rates according to a standard, vendor-neutral funding schedule. Funding sources could be kept confidential (including keeping them secret from testers/reviewers) for a period of eighteen months, then publicly declared, to maintain the funding firewall. Thus, vendors could fund the organization for the purpose of getting independent, in-depth testing and reviewing performed and published. It might be worthwhile to the vendors for the simple fact that "there's no such thing as bad press," at least in cases where there's basically no mindshare for the product in question at all. Someone should be paying me for advice on innovative business models.

seanferd
seanferd

Those are some pretty interesting facts. I hadn't mentioned it before, but I had been wondering what the employer might be getting out of a review even if the reviewer doesn't receive any inducement other than the employer directing them to review the product. What you have noted can certainly lead to the reviewer/reporter's (well, all of them, as a class) integrity being suspect, which just further motivates me to question the ethics of the publisher as well. Oddly enough, I can see someone accepting money to take the time to thoroughly review a product, especially if they are an expert, and wouldn't have otherwise examined the item. IOW, being paid for their time as a tester rather than getting a fistful of nickels for an article. But that should be fully disclosed ahead of time, and neutrality would still be suspect anyway. I mean serious testing of a complex product here, not "My impression after playing with the iPhone 5 for two days". Yet this sort of thing is still better served by independent funding of the researcher, rather than payment from the vendor, and certainly not in sly perks. Really though, even if you have a few people that you've come to trust and respect for such reviews, everything should be suspect until you can confirm information and compare opinions from other sources.