Finder's Fee or Bribe? A Case Study in Blogger Ethics

Blogging as a form of journalism is still new enough that the ethics of it are still being worked out. And blog ethics can be a particularly treacherous area for those who wander into it unawares -- as one New York City publicity executive did last week.

On Jan. 14, Katherine Rothman, CEO of KMR Communications, sent a mass email to bloggers and other editors who cover beauty, fashion, health and fitness. "I would like to make an offer to you that could be mutually beneficial in the event that this is of interest," Rothman wrote. Writers, she continued, often find themselves covering "smaller or emerging companies" that lack PR representation. "My offer is this: if you recommend a prospective client to our firm and they sign a contract with us, I would in turn provide you with a generous finder's fee."Rothman's appeal set off instant alarm bells in the heads of some who received her email, and for good reason, says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla. "It really blurs the lines of duty, if you will," says McBride. "It puts your loyalty with the finder's fee and the PR firm in front of where your primary loyalty should be, and that's your audience."

Rothman tells DailyFinance she was aware that her offer might constitute an unacceptable conflict of interest for traditional journalists -- which is why she specifically extended it to writers for nontraditional, online outlets. "I wouldn't have made that offer to The New York Times. I wouldn't have made it to the quote-unquote more serious outfits," she says. "I didn't even send it out to the major magazines because I thought their guidelines would be different."

But bloggers, she says, are more receptive to such arrangements -- both because they're less restricted by employers' rules and because many of them earn minimal income from their writing. "Quite honestly, these bloggers and Web editors don't make a heck of a lot of money, so it's an attractive offer for them and a win-win situation for both parties," she says, noting that she has received only positive responses to her email (although she declined to identify any takers). "I certainly don't see it as a bribe in any sense of the word."

But it's precisely because bloggers don't have established journalism operations with legacy ethics policies helping to guide them that they have to be extra wary of falling into such traps, says McBride. "There are a fair number of independent bloggers out there who would havea hard time envisioning how this would compromise their loyalty to readers," she says. "You have to sort of think about loyalty in the abstract in order to do this, and that's a learned skill that takes time and practice and experience.

"What these bloggers are doing looks like journalism, and, while they may even consider it journalism," she adds, "they don't have the support of a network of journalists who would roll their eyes at this and tell them why it's such a bad idea."
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