The Austin Food Blogger Alliance Weighs Ethics Against Charity

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Texas is ablaze today, wildfires ravaging Bastrop and threatening small towns outside of Austin. Fifty-seven fires are burning across 100,000 acres of Central Texas, and more than 1,000 homes have been destroyed since this latest rash of fires broke out on Monday. And in Austin, local bloggers are trying to do something about it.

It's a typical response from the blogger community in Austin, which is tightly knit and has always stepped up to offer support when it's needed, whether to area residents devastated by wildfires or to complete strangers like New York food blogger Jennifer Perillo.

Perillo recently lost her husband and was left with two small children to care for alone; food bloggers around the country rallied to help Perillo, including many Austin-based food bloggers like Penny De Los Santos (who is, coincidentally, in the process of moving to NYC). De Los Santos, a photographer for Saveur, is auctioning off an opportunity to go on assignment with her for a day, while other bloggers organized national bake sales and auctioned off their own high-dollar items for Perillo's benefit.

"That's how we, as bloggers, should be spending our time," said Natanya Anderson, president of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance. "To me, these are the kinds of things that show what organized bloggers can do." The AFBA was created earlier this year after local food bloggers had been spending increasing amounts of time assembling potluck dinners and charity functions along the same lines as the response to Jennifer Perillo's situation.

"We realized our collective power as a group to do good in the community could be harnessed," Anderson said over the phone last week. "There were a handful of people who had one-on-one conversations, but there's enough of us that we all talk to each other. If we did something a little bit more formal we could have a bigger impact on the community as a whole."

By this past Spring, the AFBA was born: a formal non-profit that seeks to support "each other and our community through classes, social events, and philanthropy." It's the first of its kind in the country.

In a sense, the AFBA is similar to the Houston Chowhounds organization: a large amount of time is spent hosting events for its members, with proceeds going to benefit local charities. But it's also wholly different, an organization that was created by and for food bloggers -- a segment of the blogosphere that's been growing exponentially in the past few years -- and one that expects its members to adhere to a strict code of ethics.

It's this aspect of the AFBA that's most intriguing, especially in light of the nearly two-year-old FTC rule that mandates bloggers must disclose any relationship with advertisers. That is, if a blogger -- food blogger or otherwise -- reviews a product (or a meal) that was given to them for free, it must be disclosed up front. The AFBA's code of ethics also covers copyright infringement issues, from photo use to plagiarism.

"We spent a lot of time trying to think through how to create guidelines that are workable," said Anderson.

"If you're going to position yourself as a reviewer and position yourself as a journalist, you should adhere to the same code of ethics as a journalist. We really are serious about you don't take other people's work, you are thoughtful about everything you post about another person."

To that end, the AFBA holds seminars and workshops for its members, teaching them to be "thoughtful" about their work and how to protect themselves against copyright infringement, as well as how not to infringe on other writers' or photographers' rights.

"There are a lot of people out there who take each other's content," said Anderson. It's an issue that former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh was all too familiar with, having his own work ripped off by the Montgomery County Bulletin in 2008 and stolen by the Ocala Magazine in 2009.

In Anderson's world, it's recipe-driven blogs that get ripped off most often. But she doesn't believe that the word thieves have malicious intent. "I think people are coming to it with widely varying knowledge, and then seeing other people do what is inherently wrong," she said. "There aren't a lot of resources where you can go and learn about, say, the top 10 things I need to know about blogging ethics."

And in that regard, the AFBA is a welcome organization in an atmosphere where ethics is so rarely discussed.

Take, for example, the recent International Food Bloggers Conference in New Orleans. In the entire three-day agenda, not a single session was held on ethics, copyright, or any other important legal issue. Ditto Camp Blogaway, whose parade of speakers covered trivial matters such as food styling and engaged in more troubling sessions like "Catching the Eye of Corporations." Yet no mention of ethics was to be found in its programming.

It's an area of concern for Anderson, especially considering the fact that so many food bloggers have no journalism background and therefore never even consider educating themselves on issues of ethics.

"I don't know how many of them seek that out," Anderson said, despite the presence of influential websites like Blog With Integrity, which originally created a blogging code of ethics back in 2009. "[These are] issues that they consider to be in the periphery. 'Which blogging platform should I use?' -- those things are much more immediate to them."

But where the AFBA will potentially stumble is in its quest to work with area restaurants as well as food bloggers. "We want to be a resource [for restaurants] as they try to work with food bloggers," Anderson said, seemingly at odds with the rest of the organization's direction. She admitted that the trend of restaurants reaching out to food bloggers and offering free meals -- and sometimes free room and board, free travel and more -- has created "an atmosphere of entitlement," one that the AFBA actively seeks to combat.

The AFBA's answer to that, however, is attempting to mediate between both groups while also facilitating partnerships between them. Says Anderson of the free meals and media dinners offered to bloggers by restaurants, it's a question of: "As a blogger, how can I form a valued partnership with these folks? How can I support this new restaurant? If I didn't like it, how can I be fair to management?"

But as any journalist will tell you, reporting is not a matter of "supporting" or forming "valued partnerships with" your subject matter. It's a matter of providing unbiased, well-researched and substantiated news or opinions -- something that's difficult to do when, say, La Torretta del Lago invites you to stay at its resort for the weekend in exchange for coverage on your food blog.

If you disliked your visit, will you risk offending the nice people who put you up for the weekend? Will every piece of food and every scrap of service be on its best behavior for you -- and only you? Or worse, since everything is free, will you be able to discern its real value? These are real, difficult conversations that need to be had as bloggers now outnumber "real" journalists in most major cities.

And as food bloggers continue to outnumber long-established food writers at magazines and newspapers across the country, more complicated questions arise: Does a blogger's readership recognize the difference between a food blogger and journalist? Do the bloggers view themselves as journalists, as bloggers, as citizen journalists, as something in between? And if not as journalists, to what code of ethics do bloggers adhere -- if any?

For its extensive code of ethics and its seminars on the topic, the AFBA seems to have taken a counter-intuitive stance by positioning itself as almost a PR-like entity between restaurants and food bloggers, while encouraging its food bloggers to view themselves as journalists at the same time.

This potential conflict of interest doesn't seem to faze Anderson: "That's where transparency is critical," she said.

"If you try to write without bias, you're kidding yourself and your readers. You have to set the context from sentence one," Anderson continued, "so that your audience can infer whatever they want about your bias. So that they have the appropriate context in which to consume your content."

"I don't want to have conversations about ethics," Anderson said, preferring instead to lead by example and encourage the AFBA bloggers to do the same. She looks at the AFBA as a potential powerhouse for charitable activities instead, such as a recent event held in conjunction with Alamo Drafthouse which raised $2,000 for A Safe Place. "It's a way to set a foundation for all the good we can do."

"We don't always get it right every time because we're human. But we try to learn and share and make each other smarter."

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