Yes, Transparency and Disclosure Do Matter in Comics Journalism
If you haven’t been living in a cave, the issue of transparency and disclosure in comics journalism/blogging kicked up over the weekend. I’m not going to link and recap everything, because by focusing on one incident we risk derailing the greater discussion. By narrowing our focus on one, we somehow let the many off. I had been planning on writing this post looking at how various comic sites handle their disclosure and transparency, but due to some leaked emails from a private listserv, and folks asking when this post is going to be done, I actually feel some pressure to say something profound.
What I am about to write and say might not be profound or visionary, but it needs to be said.
Transparency and disclosure in comics journalism and blogging does matter.
That sums up everything below, but if you want to know why it matters, and how we as bloggers, journalists, and comic fans should expect more, then please keep reading.
For those who think this is a new discussion, it’s been going on for quite some time. One of the early things I focused on when founding this site was making it transparent and disclosing conflicts or relationships that if found out might have people questioning our objectivity. I made sure to differentiate when an item was given for free for review versus ones I purchased myself, thinking that as a reader, knowing that would help me weigh the review better for bias or motive. The statement about this value is at the bottom of every page on the website, and that has been there I think, since the beginning (in various locations). I have also posted what I feel are the core values of this site and the community we’re attempting to build.
When reading through the comments on the various articles concerning the shitstorm this past weekend, many individuals said “who cares it’s just comics.” Well, we should all care, and expect more of those who bring us news, reviews, commentary, and “human interest” pieces. We should care because, if we didn’t we might as well just read the press releases published directly on the various publisher’s websites. We should care because we should expect sites to be more than mouthpieces for PR professionals. We should care because, we should expect our news to push back and not take everything at face value, soaking up soundbites for facts.
As fans and readers, we should have confidence in those who are reporting. And that confidence is boosted by providing information that helps us fans evaluate posts by news sites. Graphic Policy was founded to be Transparent, Open, and Progressive. That’s who we are, and we have never shied away from those three principles (at least I hope we haven’t).
I did not go to school for journalism, poli-sci here, so I can’t say what other “professional” sites do, I just know what feels right for me, and what I want to see as a reader of other sites.
Disclosure and transparency are key. The Comics Journal is owned by Fantagraphics. Bleeding Cool is owned by Avatar. Comic Vine is owned by CBS Interactive. This isn’t to single out these three sites, if there are other examples please let me know. But, these are three sites that are owned by publishers/creators in the industry they cover. If you go to their sites you probably wouldn’t know this fact. TCJ and Comic Vine have mentions of Fantagraphics and CBS all the way at the footer of the site. The two sites don’t disclose (or consistently disclose) this fact when covering their owners (not in the articles I clicked). In the case of Bleeding Cool they are hit and miss with disclosure when posting about their parent company Avatar. It’d be as if an automaker owned a car site that gave reviews. As a consumer, it’s good to have this information so that you can decide if coverage is biased or has a motive. I’m not saying a comic site can’t be owned by a publisher, or these sites are biased in their coverage, but perception is key and in the case of this past weekend’s events, perception was everything.
Our site has been around for 8 years, and in that time I’ve met many folks in the industry that I’d consider friends. It’s hard to not make friends, especially when there’s so many awesome people to interact with. The fact is we’re all comic fans in the end, so have something to easily connect with each other. Those friendships have absolutely gotten me access to things, and also has let publishers and creators know what type of person they’re dealing with (hopefully a professional one). But to me, friendship and schmoozing is a part of networking to get the scoop and being able to better cover the industry. There’s no one in the industry I’m regularly hanging out with, and I mostly see folks on the convention circuit, so 4 or 5 times a year. I’m not the only comics blogger/journalist where this is the case. It falls into a gray area of whether we can objectively cover these individuals. And if we as journalists even question if we can, we probably shouldn’t. In some cases those personal relationships add flavor and fun to interviews, and actually help bring the news. In others, they can bring tainted and one sided reporting. For a lot of the time, this site was just me, but with a team now, it’s easier to ask others to cover something if/when that gray area turns up. I can’t think of a time when I personally haven’t been objective in my reporting (it may have been my perspective, but that’s a different thing). It sucks giving someone you know a bad review, but honesty is usually best, right?
There’s outright abuse of the above though. Not here, but elsewhere. Reviewers and journalists review and promote/cover comics they have had a hand in creating or for publishers they work for without mentioning it at all. This Storify has numerous examples of this issue including panel reports from folks who wrote the panel press release, individuals covering comics they had a hand in creating, and more. It’s not that you can’t work for a publisher, or create a comic, it’s just you probably shouldn’t cover your own without saying it’s your own, and covering the folks who give you a paycheck… objectivity might be difficult. It can be done, it’s just not easy. I have done work for comic companies, and in that time I didn’t cover who I worked for (because it was a one man shop at the time and no I won’t reveal it due to NDA). Today, I’d have other contributors cover a story if it involved something I profited from personally, and we’d still disclose that I had a relationship. In the instances were we did cover something where my “day job” bled over, that was disclosed. You can search for our coverage about SOPA/PIPA where I worked for an advocacy organization on the issue. It just so happened the issue also was appropriate to cover here.
Hey free stuff! A lot of the comics (and other items) we get for review are free. Most are digital. Some are physical. But, not all of it is free. When we started out, all I received were review copies from Top Cow, but over these 8 years we’ve grown and expanded so that in some way most publishers send us something regularly or irregularly for review. But, not everything is free, and to me, there’s a massive distinction there.
For me, the comics have value in most cases (I can’t think of a publisher every giving me anything else). And when considering what to disclose, the FTC in their guidelines state you should disclose what has “effect on the weight” of the review. They make a distinction about a professional site and an amateur, but in this day and age, anyone can quickly become a professional, so I personally think it’s best we all disclose with hat in mind. To me, the free copy might weigh my review, because I have less cost than readers who purchase. At $3 to $5 a copy, comics aren’t cheap. And since we don’t purchase everything, or get everything for free, to me it’s important to distinguish between the two. I don’t think it’s common knowledge what comic sites do and don’t receive from publishers or PR folks. We here make that as transparent as possible (see the bottom of reviews for that disclosure, or lack of one if purchased, as an example).
Step 1. Step 2. Step 3. Profit! There’s a thing called affiliate links. That’s different than outright being paid for a post (which I don’t believe we’ve ever done, but we have been approached). Affiliate links track who clicks and if a purchase is made, we receive a cut of that purchase, often it’s about 10% of the purchase, but can vary. In cases where there are affiliate links I think it’s vital to disclose they exist, and the FTC agrees with me on that one.
We disclose this fact in our posts at the end of such posts. For products the products or services where we have including not just a link, but an affiliate link, there isn’t one where I wouldn’t have still posted it if the affiliate link wasn’t available.
The amount that comes in is miniscule, but affiliate links allow us to keep on doing Nerd Block/Loot Crate/geek box of the month unboxings, and helps keep the lights on. We’re not talking rolling in cash here, the site breaks even right now (actually a loss if you count convention trips which I’d probably take anyways). I have a day job that pays well, and my goal isn’t for the site to be profitable. My long term goal is to pay my contributors. We’re comic/movie/television/toy fans, but they deserve to be paid, and eventually I hope we’ll get to a point where I can. The pennies I currently would be able to pay would be an insult for the hard work they do. Got a bit off track there. Again, I disclose the affiliate links because you deserve to know if we stand to make money off of something.
So here’s what we here at Graphic Policy have, and will continue to do.
- Disclose all FREE product when writing reviews or promoting items. Free is considered to be something the average person would have to pay for. An example of something not free is a product that the average person can get, like a comic tied into a movie with movie ticket purchase, or a television show. An example of not free are many of the weekly comics released that we get to read and review. Look for this disclosure, or lack of one for paid items, at the end of reviews
- I pride myself on being open, and honest. This site will give our honest opinion and/or break news, no matter who it might piss off. Being blacklisted is a badge of honor to me. I have offered feedback on how to make posts better, but can’t think of outright censoring anything.
- All affiliate links/paid posts will be identified. That one is pretty simple. Look for the disclosure at the end of posts and/or spoken in video.
- We will disclose when we receive direct advertising payment while running stories during the advertising period. We are currently blind as to what’s being run as ads on our site. I have no idea what’s shown, so there is no way for conflict. If at a point we sell advertising directly, we will mention it if we cover the company directly and for a time period after.
- If we review/report on something/someone that there is a financial tie, we will disclose it.
- We will not review a comic for anyone that is a current contributor. We will disclose past contributors. We will post previews though without disclosure (since we’re here to promote comics and we’ll run anyone’s preview and not like a preview post involves opinions).
- When covering conventions we will NOT disclose if we receive press passes, unless we are actually commenting on the convention itself as opposed to events at the convention.
- We are currently not owned by a publisher, media company, or creator. If that changes we’ll let you know and disclose it after the fact.
We won’t always be perfect, and there are times even I forget to note things. But to me, for Graphic Policy this isn’t about ethics, it’s about trust between us the contributors and you the readers who make up our community. I want to earn your trust, and keep it. I can’t control what other sites do, I can only control what we do here, and these values are ones I think are important, and ones I do my best to stand up for and stand by.
For other bloggers who want to learn about Ethics in Journalism, there is a free online course I plan taking to learn more myself and help make sure we do this right.