Is corruption of the media creeping online?

Loot bag bloggers are changing the media landscape as they get mixed up with citizen journalists. Are undisclosed paid reviews and posts a form of deception?

Angela Casauay
Updated 12:31 PM, Nov 23, 2012

MANILA, Philippines - From the "Big Bad" to the loot bag?

It's common practice for companies or groups to distribute gifts or loot bags to mainstream media reporters after an event as a token of appreciation. But a group of mostly "mom bloggers," have allegedly been attending events only if loot bags are distributed afterwards.

Content writer Jude Cartalaba, who is also a public relations practitioner, said the "loot bag bloggers" would at times, end up not writing an article for the event they were supposed to cover.

"Most of the loot bag bloggers are moms, but not all of them. There's nothing wrong with being a mommy blogger as long as you deliver. Sometimes they don't deliver. They get invited by PR departments but most of them wouldn't even bother to come up with their own articles," Cartalaba said.

Because blogs are viewed as a more subjective form of media, as compared to traditional media that are ideally more objective, Cartalaba said that PR firms expect bloggers to provide original content from their own unique point of view.

"However, some would rely on copy-pasting. Some companies would prefer that they have something to say and deliver to the public," he said.

They prefer attending consumer events, Cartalaba said, because these provide them an opportunity to choose from the various products they could take home that day.

Cartalaba said that some of the "mommy bloggers" even compare what's inside the loot bags. And when they don't get invites, one particular blogger would rant about it on Twitter.

"They would even insist. If they're not invited, they would find their way to be invited. If one blogger is invited within their circle of friends, they would let everyone know and then they would flock to the event," he said.

Although noting that such instances only represent a small percentage of the entire blogging community, Cartalaba said similar behavior are also known of bloggers invited by a television network, who would not attend the events if they would not get at least P1,000 or P1,000 worth of gift checks.

Not limited to bloggers

University of the Philippines professor Danilo Arao said the issue of accepting financial compensation or other rewards in exchange for a favorable write up is not exclusive to bloggers.

"To some extent, the corruption that's happening in media would tend to cut across the different platforms. There are similar situations, whether in radio or print, where some people called hao shaos (fake journalists) just use their press card to get perks," Arao said.

As a PR practitioner, Cartalaba said he has seen "envelopmental journalism," a term derived from the practice of giving journalists envelopes with money. Some of these journalists are from lifestyle and entertainment, while others even come uninvited.

Cartalaba said he believes bloggers are still the "lesser evil" as the practice of providing cash to traditional media journalists is much more ingrained in the industry.

In the November 16 episode of Breaking Glass, political consultant and advertising expert Greg Garcia talked about "envelopmental journalism" in politics and confirmed that there are also bloggers who are already accepting payment for content.

"There are already bloggers who are already being paid, there are brokers who say, I can get you this blogger, I don't know how legitimate that is, but there are already brokers. I don't believe in buying off bloggers. It's like buying off everybody, everybody can be a blogger, it's been democratized, anyone can put up a blog anytime you want." he said.

Janette Toral, author of the book Blogging From Home, and blogger behind Influential Blogger and the Digital Filipino, said journalists should first clean up their act before requiring the same of bloggers.

"There have been attacks on bloggers and the execution is even through a blind item. There's this undue expectation on bloggers. Accepting freebies and the like, it's happening also in traditional media. In fact, precedent nga sila," she said.

In 2011, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published a blind item column about a “Big Bad Blogger” managed by a PR firm who allegedly tried to extort money from a restaurateur. A number of bloggers whose names were connected to the rumor have since denied their involvement in the matter in an ABS-CBN report.

But Arao said it should not be a case of "the pot calling the kettle black" as some bloggers have now realized the need to "professionalize" their craft to maintain their audience.

"Because of the high incidents of spamming, trolling and free-loaders, many bloggers now realize that there is a need to be responsible. There is a certain degree of variety or of professionalism that is necessary that you're able to maintain your readers," he said.

Commodification of blogs

From being mere “online diaries” in the 1990s in the advent of the dotcom boom, blogs are now increasingly becoming more “commodified” or commercialized as advertising tools become more accessible.

"It used to be that bloggers write because they are passionate about the things they write about. I'm not saying that traditional media aren't passionate but it's part of their job, as opposed to bloggers, who just do it on the side," Cartalaba said.

Cartalaba said he believes that unless bloggers have attained a certain status or designed a sustainable model for their blogs, they should not be doing it full-time and using it as a source of income.

"But now, it has evolved. Bloggers see that there is a future, there's a profit and they're now being tapped as an extension of the public relations strategy of companies," he added.

New media theorist Geert Lovink writes in his book, "Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture" that back in the 1990s, “Blog culture was not developed enough to be dominated by venture capital.”

“Blogs first appeared as casual conversations that could not be easily commodified,” Lovink wrote.

But with the rise of web 2.0 also came the rise of citizen journalism and what some may call “professional bloggers,” or bloggers who do it full-time.

Being a blogger can now be a distinction and even a profession.

For example, Anton Diaz, author of ourawesomeplanet.com, quit his day job to focus on his blog, according to his online profile.

Public relation companies are expectedly aware of the trend. One example is the launch of the Magnum ice cream brand early this year, where promotions centered on social media marketing. Celebrity ambassadors were selected based on the number of their followers and bloggers were invited to their events, pushing an already popular international brand into a local “trending topic.”

Despite the bad press that enveloped the so-called "Big Bad Blogger" issue last year, restaurant owners in Taguig said they had a similar experience with a blogger after the article came out. They said they invited a popular food blogger to their restaurant through their PR company but they were informed that the blogger would only write an article if he was paid an amount with 5 digits.

But the owners said this was an isolated case as most food bloggers whom they invited came without asking for any financial compensation.

Sustainable blogs

Bloggers can now use a variety of models to make their blogs financially sustainable.

Online tools designed to bring in revenues through advertisements are now more accessible. For example, bloggers can subscribe to blog advertising community Nuffnang, which does not only serve blogs with advertisements that match their content and readership, but also provides opportunities to attend free bloggers' events and get offers for paid posts.

A similar example is Google Adsense, where bloggers can apply as publishers, get verified, customize their advertisements then publish them on their website.

For bloggers who accept paid posts, the rate is determined by their web traffic and other variables, such as reader interaction. The higher the traffic, the higher the rate. For paid tweets, Rob Angeles, founder of the "Philippines’ first social media blog," said the rate depends on the following variables: influence of the user, reach, engagement, number of followers, and Klout or Kred Score, which measures your web influence.

Information from paypertweet.com, a website that allows Twitter users to accept offers for paid tweets, shows that celebrities such as Shakira get paid up to $23,000 per tweet. In the Philippines, the usual rate per tweet is P1 per follower, such that a Twitter user with 20,000 followers could earn P20,000 per tweet.

For those whose followers have reached up to 100,000 or even millions, the compensation comes in packages, depending on the product's marketing strategy campaign.

Deception

Hans Eric Roxas Chua, co-program director of e-learning EDGE's Certified Digital Market Program, said that engaging bloggers and Twitter personalities is different from dealing with commercial entities such as publishers because arrangements tend to be personal and unique for each of them.

"I would caution against generalizing “bloggers” and “Twitter personalities.” Treat them as you would treat a person face-to-face, you have to get to know a person first before proposing something, right? Before you engage someone, make sure you research that person’s blog/Twitter account first. They may have a related position about whatever communications you want to engage them for," he said.

Chua said that the deals for each blogger, whether through advertisements, paid posts, or paid tweets, are tailored to each blogger depending on his market.

"Again, since this is very personal, it can range from a simple invite to try out your product (for free), even shouldering simple travel expenses. If they like your product they may not even ask for anything in return. There are also online celebrities that charge the same way a celebrity endorser would. You may also deal with commercial entities (agencies, blog networks), to reach bloggers that are open to a commercial arrangement," he said.

Arao, who is a blogger himself, said there are certain sponsors who would clearly require bloggers not to disclose that posts have been paid for and to write only positive reviews.

"What is basic in the issue of selling or monetization is the element of deception," he said.

"For bloggers, there is a degree of disclosure necessary when it comes to sponsored posts or paid links," he added.

Entrepreneurial

But Toral believes that arrangements for paid posts are "private transactions" between the client and the blogger, and it is a way for bloggers to be "entrepreneurial."

"As long as you're not fooling anyone, you're not manufacturing any information. There's nothing wrong with it, I believe," she said.

Beauty and fashion blogger Liz Lanuzo, who has been blogging for 7 years, said that while paid posts written for the purposes of launching or announcing new products are acceptable, the line must be drawn in writing paid reviews.

"It defeats the purpose. Reviewing something, for me, means that I have to write what's good and what's bad about it. If there's nothing bad then I would say there's nothing bad, but I do not want to be pressured to water down or hide an opinion or information that may dissuade my readers from buying what I just reviewed," she said.

The key word is honesty, according to Arao.

"We go back to the basics here. There is nothing wrong, despite the weakness of online monetization, in general, there is nothing wrong with making money online -- for as long as you do it as honestly as possible," he said. - Rappler.com

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