This guide has been created to provide an examples-driven guide to some of the many pitfalls facing food writers and journalists today. In a time of great challenges for journalism this is obviously not an exhaustive list of scenarios, but the areas covered are the matters of most concern to the Guild and those that we believe are most in need of illumination and clarification.
In an age of citizen journalism, blogs, fake news and ‘press release news’, it’s more important than ever for working journalists to maintain the highest standards of independent journalism and to educate yourself on the relevant codes and legislation. These include those from the Press Council of Ireland (PCI), the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI’s Code of Standards for Advertising and Marketing Communications in Ireland).
Many food writers entered the world of food writing from diverse backgrounds. Where once anyone wishing to be published had to convince an editor or a publishing house of their talent, the internet has opened a new and exciting era of creative writing and citizen journalism. However, with this gain we also lost an important check and balance on the basic journalism principles that publishers and professionally trained journalists have as part of their basic skill set.
With this in mind, the Irish Food Writers’ Guild has outlined below examples of common breaches of journalism ethics as well as the basic tenets of good journalism.
1. Being independent
In order to be fully independent, food writers and restaurant reviewers need to ensure they are not compromised in any way.
It is also worth familiarising yourself with the ASAI Code, particularly the issues of what constitutes a marketing communication, payment and control, and disclosure.
A. Food samples and review copies should be independently critiqued – their supply to you is not a gift, but part of your job.
Many food-related companies send samples of their products to food writers and bloggers. This is not ‘free food’ for which you should be grateful in any way: these are items for you to taste, judge and independently critique. You are under no obligation to write about these samples if they don’t match your view of how they should taste. Equally, you are obliged to give them an honest critique if you do choose to write about them. You cannot write about something you have not tasted, just as you wouldn’t critique a book without reading it.
B. You cannot accept invitations to restaurants in exchange for writing or blogging about the meal or restaurants unless you clearly state you were invited and gifted the meal.
By accepting invitations to restaurants for complimentary meals and then agreeing to do a professional restaurant critique about them based on that free meal, you have compromised your independent view. A writer who has been given a complimentary meal by a restaurant will inevitably soften their critique. This does not mean that press evenings, launch events, ‘fam trips’ organised by PR companies or tourism boards, etc. don’t have a place in the world of professional food writing by way of providing familiarisation that might be useful for general features and food news, etc., but rather that a piece of writing framed specifically as a restaurant review should be based on a meal that has been booked and paid for independently.
The correct independent restaurant reviewing system is as follows:
- Restaurant bookings should be made anonymously.
- The cost of the meal is covered by the reviewer at the end of the meal, which is then reimbursed by the newspaper or publication or filed as an expense for a blog.
- Any perceived or real conflict of interest should be stated in the copy. Ireland is a small place – perhaps it’s your cousin’s new business; a friend is the best friend of the owner; or perhaps you were at school with the chef’s husband. Any such conflict should be stated in the copy.
- The restaurant has no right to see the copy before it goes to print. Therefore, it is incumbent on the writer to fact-check everything thoroughly.
- Where a reviewer might wish to identify themselves in order to speak to the owner or manager during their visit, this is best done AFTER the bill has been paid.
- It is inappropriate to use your position as a food writer to seek preferential treatment in a restaurant, either during a review or at other times.
Remember: when in doubt, best practice is to disclose any perceived or potential conflicts of interest. This disclosure should be contained within the main content of your communications, ideally within the first couple hundred or so words, with a view to making it as clear as possible to any reader from the outset. Likewise, consider using hashtags such as #gifted, #invite or #guest to clarify your status.
2. Commercial or material gain
A. You cannot accept goods in exchange for writing or blogging about them if the supplier is also agreeing to advertise on or sponsor your blog or website unless you clearly state the relationship.
In general terms, all journalists are obliged to refuse gifts, favours, free travel or any other special treatment that might compromise their impartiality or credibility. Most journalists never have to consider this as they are reporting on crime, politics or other issue-driven stories. Therefore, reviewers of everything from films and books to beauty products and food need to be very careful in how they manage this exchange of goods or services for review. Items for review are not gifts and should not be considered as such.
The accepted convention is to manage any possible perceived conflict of interest with phrases such as: Joe Blogs was the guest of the Greenland Tourist Board on this trip or Jane Blogs was an invited guest of Acme Restaurant.
If your online writing is sponsored, you need to clearly state this. Some would argue that if you are being paid to write about a particular food you are in fact a marketeer rather than a journalist. In accordance with the ASAI Code, the hashtags #ad, #sp or #spon should be used if there is a commercial relationship of any kind, which includes payment in kind (see below).
However, the delivery of an item to taste, read or test does not constitute a payment. It is not a gift: it is necessary in order to write your review, as you cannot critique something you have not tasted, read or seen. That would also be dishonest.
If you are self-employed it would be preferable to purchase all these things yourself, as they are then expenses to your business or your employer. However, many organisations, such as publishing houses, have review copies that they can send you.
B. Paid-for content must be flagged as such. In traditional media (print and broadcasting), commercially sponsored editorial content is labelled ‘advertorial’ to indicate it is a marketing communication. Digital/online marketing communications must also be clearly indicated as such.
The ASAI Code and related ASAI FAQs on Blogging document (see below for links) provide useful guidance on when content is considered to be advertising/marketing communication. Key to this distinction are the two elements of payment and control: where both elements are present, content is considered to be a marketing communication.
Where an advertiser makes a payment (directly or in kind, including compensation, cash, free products or services or other reciprocal arrangement) to the reviewer/blogger and where the advertiser has control over the content that is created (i.e. where there is an obligation to create content with explicit direction from a brand owner), that content should be disclosed as a marketing communication. In short-form communications (e.g. social media posts) this can be done with the above hashtags; where there is an ongoing working relationship, other hashtags, such as #workwith, #paidpartnership or #brandambassador, might also be relevant. In longer-form communications, the commercial relationship should be stated clearly and early on in the communication.
Remember: the reader/consumer should not have to play detective; and disclosure is required when both payment and control co-exist.
3. Fact-checking and primary sources
In an age of instant communication, one of the basic tools of professionally trained journalism has been lost: verifying facts and sources. There’s an old saying in journalism – if your mother says she loves you, fact check it – but this rule of thumb is relevant to all forms of professional writing.
Now more than ever, people are verifying facts and stories online, where all this information can be easily doctored or faked. Online sources are often a secondary source rather than a primary source.
Make personal contact with the person or organisation in question to check your facts. This is your primary source and is often where you get a better story beyond a press release, which is only one side of a story. You are obliged to seek out other opinions or views for your story. In doing so, you’ll often find a better story not being covered by anyone else.
Other primary sources include peer-reviewed academic texts or physically tasting foods to provide a first-hand account.
It is incumbent on you as a journalist, blogger or food writer to be vigilant about fact-checking, distinguishing fact from opinion and seeking substantiation for claims being made, particularly to do with health. This is especially sensitive when you are writing on someone else’s behalf. According to the ASAI Code on Misleading Communications, your writing should be truthful and honest and should not contain claims – whether direct or indirect, expressed or implied – that a consumer would be likely to regard as being objectively true unless the objective truth of the claims can be substantiated.
Never give your copy to the people or business you are writing about, but do go back to sources to verify facts.
Remember, too, that you are obliged to protect the identity of any sources who gave you information in confidence.
4. Attribution, plagiarism and libel
If you fail to properly acknowledge somebody or pass off somebody else’s work as your own, they are well within their rights to pursue you in the courts.
It is perfectly reasonable to use somebody else’s writing or ideas to support your writing, but you must clearly attribute them with their name and/or quotation marks. In the case of recipe writing, if you are amending a previously published recipe, it is best practice to credit the original writer by saying your version is amended from or inspired by theirs.
Plagiarism software is now commonly used to verify the authenticity of a writer’s copy. Even a basic copy and paste of a few sentences into a search engine will quickly reveal if the writing came from elsewhere.
If you’re reporting the truth or a firmly held belief, it can be strongly argued that you are not being libellous. This is why accuracy is so important. Knowing what is libellous and what is not is the difference between knowing what is opinion and what is fact.
5. Further resources
All food writers should make themselves familiar with the standard codes of practice that apply to their particular form of food writing, whether that is within print journalism, broadcasting/podcasting, book publishing, online platforms, etc. The following resources contain useful guidelines with which to inform good practice.
- The UK’s Guild of Food Writers code of conduct: http://www.gfw.co.uk/code-of-conduct
- National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct: https://www.nuj.org.uk/about/nuj-code/
- The Press Council of Ireland’s code of practice applies to those working in print journalism, but it contains sound guidelines that are applicable beyond print also. Guild members and other food writers should be particularly mindful of Principles 1 (Truth and Accuracy), 2 (Distinguishing Fact and Comment) and 4 (Respect for Rights) as well as Principles 3 (Fair Procedures and Honesty), 6 (Protection of Sources) and 8 (Prejudice), where relevant: http://www.presscouncil.ie/code-of-practice
- ASAI Code of Standards for Advertising and Marketing Communications in Ireland (particularly Section 8 on Food and Non-alcoholic Beverages and Section 9 on Alcoholic Drinks): https://www.asai.ie/asaicode/section-8-food-and-nonalcoholic-beverages/
- ASAI FAQs for bloggers (particularly useful for ascertaining what kinds of online content, including social media, should be considered marketing communications and disclosed accordingly): http://www.asai.ie/wp-content/uploads/ASAI-FAQs-for-Bloggers-Apr2018.pdf
- firstname.lastname@example.org provides a free, fast (24–48 hours) and non-legally binding advice service on copy.
- International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s (ICPEN) Guidelines for Digital Influencers on online review and endorsements: https://www.icpen.org/sites/default/files/2017-06/ICPEN-ORE-Guidelines%20for%20Digital%20Influencers-JUN2016.pdf
- FSAI Guidance Note on the Use of Food Marketing Terms: https://www.fsai.ie/publications_food_marketing_terms
Key to the success of any journalist is their ability to take an independent view and to be seen as being honest and fair in their writing. This is our real value and it’s what will help to earn trust from readers. If readers suspect you are a paid mouthpiece, your value will quickly disappear – both amongst your readers and the very people who pay you.
We hope that this guide to best journalistic practice will help all IFWG members to navigate the changing landscape of traditional and emerging media and to work towards delivering on the collective aim of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild: to be a voice for better eating.