Blogging Ethics: when I totally abandoned my ethics (and how I fixed it)
I completely compromised my ethics for blog work. It’s true. I admit it. Yes, I had some shining white-hat moments where I stood up for myself and what I believe, but in retrospect, I didn’t do that enough. Talking about blogging ethics has really been weighing on me as of late and I have to share my own struggles in hopes of supporting and encouraging other bloggers.
Blogging: “isn’t that just writing about whatever you want and spewing word vomit to whoever will listen?” No, it’s much more than that. Blogging and being an influencer is about creating content of all types and sharing your views and opinions in an informed way, including effectively communicating whatever emotion is involved. “So how do the ethics of blogging come into play?” So glad you asked.
Note: I’m not going to share the specific verbiage of contracts or copy/paste emails here. I’m also not going to directly call out who the client was in each situation (even if it’s obvious). Consider this article a cautionary tale and know that key details of situations have been left out.
What you'll find...
- Being true to yourself
- Blogging Ethics: doing the right thing for your readers
- Ethical contracts and the environment
- If you see something say something
- Listening to your gut re: ethics
Being true to yourself
I’ll start with being true to yourself, because once you’ve abandoned this, it’s very difficult to turn back.
As a blogger, I get ten to twenty emails each week asking us to add links within our site to other websites, either in exchange for them linking to us or for compensation. Literally, it can be so easy to say “Sure, I’ll add a link. And you’ll just send me $150? Okay.” Yeah, I did that a few times very early on and was excited to make money for virtually no work. And then I learned about manual penalties.
If Google thinks that you’re being paid for links or setting up spammy links and trying to play the system, they hit you with a manual action and pull you from search results. Thankfully I never had that happen, as I learned about this sort of thing early on, realized that I don’t want to play a game where I compromise my ethics or get in trouble, and I pulled those links.
Something else that we are offered continually is content “written to uniquely fit your site.” Yeah no. We write our own stuff. Unfortunately, I’ve come across other bloggers who’ve obviously said yes to the mess.
Example: I was reading an article on a travel blog that was all about planning a family trip to Disneyland (which we do often and love!). As I was reading through, I noticed some odd links, but whatever, and then the article made mention of “my son and I.” I stopped dead in my tracks. I knew this blogger and I knew they didn’t have any children. I read on and discovered that they had accepted a generic piece and gotten paid to throw it up and INFLUENCE others and link from their site.
Ultimately, I reached out to the blogger and called them on it. They responded with a chuckle and a whoops. From that day on I haven’t been able to see their content as genuine, to recommend them to anybody, and I won’t link to their stuff anymore. Abandoning blogging ethics hurts a whole web of people.
Promoting what you don’t care about
Guilty. When you’re just starting out, it’s exciting to be asked to create content about something or someplace. True, you might not know anything about it or care about it, but getting paid to write all about a product that you’ve never tried but “are totally interested in” is really tempting. It’s easy money. Getting paid to share about all the fun you’d have visiting Place X and doing Activity Y is a nice thought, but if you haven’t done it yourself or know anybody else who has, why are you sharing it and recommending it to others? You’ve got to be true to yourself and what you care about, otherwise everybody will know and think you’re a sell-out.
And when we’re talking about blogging ethics, we want to be sure that our readers and followers know that we’re being authentic. Being authentic is being honest. If you can’t say you’re being honest, then there’s a problem. See? Blogging ethics are the same as normal human ethics.
Blogging Ethics: doing the right thing for your readers
We’ve partnered with several health and product brands other the years and most have been awesome. You know, they want us to share the great things their group or brand can do for families and individuals. We’re all about that. But there were also times within this that we were asked to candy-coat certain things or to gaslight certain perceptions. While ultimately we did the right thing, the ethics of blogging weighed hard on us in certain moments.
Telling somebody how to parent: sunblock and flu shots
If you want to ruffle feathers or make somebody feel terrible, tell them how to parent and what products they SHOULD be using with their kids. Nothing gets me more heated than being told that I’m doing something wrong or that I’m not doing all that I should for my kids. Enter flu shots and sunblock.
I feel like every person I talk to has an opinion about flu shots. 80% swear by them and think it’s imperative to ensure their family stays healthy, 15% are adamant that flu shots bring on the worst flu imaginable, and then 5% don’t care. We’re in the don’t care/mildly evil group. We don’t do flu shots in our house for several reasons: 1.) there’s an egg product in them and we live with an egg allergy 2.) on the occasions of getting them in the past the flu has actually hit us worse (cuz H1N1 ain’t happening again), and 3.) why require the whole family to go through awful pain for a precaution that is, in our experience, unlikely to work.
Well, we were asked as part of a contract to write about flu prevention, and we did. We shared a great article about how we stay healthy in our family and all of our best tips for traveling and living life during the cold and flu season. It took some discussion and explanation, but we were able to share our piece without directing parents to subject their children to flu shots. We felt like we maintained our blogging ethics, for sure.
Believe me when I say that we are all about healthy kids in our family. We love to do yoga with the kids, we love to make sure they have enough sleep and healthy food to grow. We also love to let them live in the world letting the natural processes do their thing. Example: sun protection. As part of a larger contract, we were asked to share our best tips about sun protection… We crafted a really thoughtful, thorough piece that covered all different approaches to making sure kids stay safe in the sun. We even included minor mentions of sunblock, which we only use in very specific situations and sparingly at that. Yeah no. That didn’t fly and the contracted partner wouldn’t approve it. Also, they wanted us to remove all references to reef-safe sunblocks, thus directly removing the opportunity to educate parents about the environmental impact of lathering children in chemicals.
With that, we stood our ground and we ended things amicably with the brand, not finishing out the year but agreeing that our partnership wasn’t meant to continue. Even though the ethics of blogging ended our relationship with that group, we have no regrets about walking away.
Gaslighting about chemicals in products
As I read the above heading it sounds really intense and politically charged. Gaslighting is a common word you hear these days. If you don’t know what it is, gaslighting is the act of convincing someone that they have believed something else or reteaching them what they’re okay with. I’m not okay with lots of things, one of them being gaslighting others.
We were asked by a brand to share the many ways we use their products with our kids, and we did/do truly use their products. We thought this brand partnership would be the perfect fit, until they asked us to be sure we talked about parabens and provided resources to discredit scholarly research that had been done that linked parabens to developing certain cancers. Yeah no. When you ask somebody to tell people that something is totally safe when they believe it’s not due to clinical research, you’re asking somebody to compromise their ethics.
We went through several calls with the marketing and PR team to come to a mutual understanding about what we deemed acceptable and not. What resulted was us sharing the products that we do use and love but not telling people to ignore the reports and studies that warn about paraben compounds. They got their product placement and a great article about children’s skincare and we got to stay within the ethics of blogging to recommend only what we authentically support.
I’d like to think that our discussions and the final outcome had an impact on that brand and that they’ve changed their approach to informing the public. Who knows.
Ethical contracts and the environment
I guess there are rare occasions when a person would be legally obligated to keep their mouth shut, but as a member of the media and with a captive audience, a blogger should never subject themselves to that. Blogging ethics have authenticity and experience, education and action at the heart. We shouldn’t abandon those things for fun chance.
Contractually looking the other way
My first big contract was long. So long. And it was the first time that the ethics of blogging ever came to mind. As I was reviewing a particular contract, which I was beyond excited about, I saw an entire appendix of restriction to the content I was to create. Among the details were notes like “avoid showing construction” or “content should not include overt drunkenness.” Cool, I wouldn’t want to share that anyways. And then I saw two lines that were big red flags. This was the first moment my blogging ethics meter went off.
There were notations about not picturing black smoke and pollution created by the brand. There was a line requiring that no consumer waste production or discharge be captured or shared. Whaatttt??? Apparently I was signing on for a blogging trip that would be creating a ton of pollution of all sorts and that I was contracted to look the other way. I pondered and then did just what the contract required: I looked the other way.
I completely sacrificed my gut feelings and compromised the ethics of blogging for a job. Because I wanted to have Brand X on my resume and also have all the fun that went with it, I vowed to not show the world the environmental impact this type of tourism had. Looking back, it’s shameful that I let my ethics be guided by fun and opportunity instead of what I knew was right.
If you see something say something
Being a travel blogger, we go all around the world and meet lots of people from different cultures. Being from the Pacific Northwest of the USA, we’re very liberal and actively teach the kids to be considerate of others and the environment over themselves and their enjoyment. In other countries, or maybe it’s just households, it seems to be okay to act a certain way or treat people differently because that’s how it’s always been done. Not okay though.
Selling people on morally wrong experiences
“Morally wrong.” That’s a heavy phrase. What do you think about using animals for entertainment? What do you think about invading another’s habitat and impacting their ability to survive on their own? Yeah, we’re not down with those things either. We’ve had several moments where we’ve realized this was happening.
Dolphin tourism is something a lot of families see as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Getting to interact with them and see dolphins perform is unique and really lets you feel close to nature. Well, if you’re unaware, many of the dolphins in captivity are there because they’ve been captured and trained, not because they’re recovering from an injury or because they were born in captivity. Yes, there are many that live in aquariums all around the world because they’ve needed human help to survive, but still many have been captured. An example of this is in the many dolphin experiences available to book in Mexico, from Cabo San Lucas to Cancun. Between the wild removal and the improper care, many dolphins suffer or die.
Where is the blogging ethics issue? Until recently we had linked to tour providers that offer these sorts of dolphin experiences. We had several links and recommendations for aquariums that use dolphins as entertainment versus education. We have learned that we need to be very careful when we recommend experiences, tour operators and attractions that include wildlife experiences. We don’t want to be a part of the problem. Now, we speak out and educate as a part of the solution. Read about responsible, sustainable ecotours in Cabo San Lucas here.
Human ethics and standing up for others
Two particular situations come to mind, both upsetting in different ways. The first is being a blogger perpetuating travel ideas to the LGBT community and encouraging people to visit destinations where there are harmful laws or where somebody could legally be prosecuted for being themselves. True, sometimes the only way to change the world is to be more present and visible in it, but also it’s the job of a blogger to do right and help their audience live their lives to the fullest in a responsible way. So, here’s the scoop:
I went to Jamaica and had an awesome time and then wrote about it (river tubing and waterfall jumping). Jamaica has some very repressive laws prohibiting LGBT relationships and offering no legal protections. Basically, even if not enacted, at any given time somebody could be arrested. “Punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment with or without hard labor.” Yeah, that’s not okay.
Following my visit to Jamaica and writing about several activities, I have added strong wording and a warning to any LGBT readers considering a trip to Jamaica. Many gay travel bloggers share stories and opinions about visiting countries with strong anti-LGBT laws and often state that visiting has no risk or it’s unlikely that laws would be enacted. Sorry, but there’s no way I can encourage somebody to visit a country where a chance arrest could ruin their life.
Yeah, somebody might read the above and call it a big judgement or a fear-based view, but how horrible would you feel if you told somebody that you had a great experience and that the laws aren’t enforced… and then they were separated from their family at customs or were arrested randomly or something.
The second situation that made me think twice about my bogging actions was when I wrote about Stone Mountain in Georgia. If you’re unfamiliar, Stone Mountain is a large park in north Georgia that has three Civil War figures on it, generals of the Confederacy. So how were my blogging ethics compromised?
After putting up my article about Stone Mountain, I started getting all sorts of comments and emails telling me that I misunderstood history and that the civil war wasn’t about slavery and that the Confederate movement today isn’t about racism and … I acquiesced to several of these comments making my article much less political and turned it more into a guide for Stone Mountain vs my perception of what we encountered.
I should’ve stood my ground, spoke out even more strongly about racism, and shut down the trolls that we overriding my anti-racist views by discrediting my historic knowledge. They were gaslighting my experience and what I know of history to make me change what I wrote. I gave in at the time and edited my copy. I later fixed it and made sure to share how much of a monument to racism and the old South Stone Mountain actually is.
I should have held true to my morals and blogging ethics from the get go. Lesson learned.
Listening to your gut re: ethics
When it comes to blogging, ethics really are the same as normal, everyday ethics. It can be tempting to take an easy path or error on the side of not offending people. Something that is actually quite the privilege when you think about is that being a blogger and having your own platforms and controlling your own media, you can share ethical, educated opinions. You can follow your gut to do the right thing in every situation. Being in control of your outlets, you don’t have to EVER compromise your values when you create and share content.
If you are blogging and have been offered a contract or invited to participate in something, you can tell if things aren’t quite right. If you’re writing and you feel like you could’ve been more honest or direct, listen to that feeling and do it. The honor of blogging is being authentic, and I’ve never met somebody that couldn’t feel when they weren’t being their true selves.
So, that was an earful. Thank you so much for reading and following along. If you subscribe to our newsletter (there’s a form below if you don’t yet), you know that 2019 is our year of Real Talk. We’ve made the commitment to be real and open in all situations. We’re still sharing all of the fun and wonder that we discover, but we’re also being more authentic than ever before. We don’t have any crap on our site at this point in time and we’re committed to not compromising our blogging ethics as we continue.
If you have any questions or feel the need to call us out on something, please DO NOT HESITATE. Send us a note or leave us a comment. We’re happy to hear from you and respond.
Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”