Media Draft – Ethics and Beer Writing Continued…

Posted on Posted in Beer Writing, Media Draft

For the last several weeks, Stan Hieronymus’s website, Appellation Beer, has played host to a bit of a rarity, a debate over journalistic ethics. What started as a few riffs on the notion and purpose of criticism quickly devolved (in part my own fault) into a larger debate on the proper role of writers in the beer trade. I’ve written and spoken a number of times in the past about my concerns over what I perceive to be a serious lack of professional ethics in the area of beer writing. The recent debate among a number of well-known professional beer writers, amateur writers, and consumers has started me on the project of trying to delineate a set of guidelines for ethical beer writing that I hope will (or should) garner some acceptance.

Before I suggest some protective measures, I thought it prudent to first raise a few of the ethical quandaries that I see in our industry in order to illustrate the need for some guidelines. Like any other industry, beer writing’s ranks include amateur hobbyists who pen the occasional article or column for their local ‘brewspaper,’ full time reporters who either cover beer as a beat for major newspaper or magazine, and professional writers who focus exclusively on covering beer and brewing. These different groups of writers have very different interests, restrictions, and levels of training. While your average journalism school graduate will have to take and pass a class involving a discussion of journalistic ethics, and the professional newspaper reporter is bound by his or her employer’s code of conduct, the hobbyist writer lacks any true ethical guideposts beyond their own creation or adoption.

It is my belief that this lack of ethical guidelines has caused beer writing to lack professionalism. This state of affairs contributes to a general absence of respect for the trade of beer writing. And where beer writing is not respected, the subject of coverage, namely the business of brewing, suffers. For a long time, it seems as if writers and brewers didn’t quite know what to make of one another. Sometimes hesitant to interact, brewers expected positive coverage from the writers. In return, writers quietly expected special treatment, be it the occasional free beer, meal, or access to events. The relationship eventually grew quite cozy, with the two groups serving each other’s interests quite well. The problem with this incestuous relationship is that the consumers never figured into the equation.

Positive coverage has so long been the expected standard in beer writing that what little inclination towards criticism or coverage aimed at bettering the consumer’s experience was quickly lost. For a long time, beer writers have believed that criticism means writing that Young’s Old Nick Barley Wine is actually more an old ale than a barley wine (and self-gratifyingly thinking that this is a radical and brave opinion).

While the average and even above-average consumer might never take a moment to think of the ethics or critical skills of those whose reportage they are reading, that doesn’t mean that those souls providing the reporting shouldn’t consider the issues themselves. Despite the dozens upon dozens of beer niche based publications that we have, America has no beer journalism/writing/reporting group or association where people can discuss these issues. Our counterparts in Britain indeed do have such an organization and it has a set of agreed-upon ethical rules that it expects members to follow.

AABWhile the debate over the proper principles of ethical writing should address the dozens of thorny issues, my interest in this subject was recently revived by an old issue of All About Beer Magazine that randomly (or serendipitously) crossed my path. While recently sipping a 2007 Alaskan Smoked Porter at the beer friendly bar at the Wine Exchange of Sonoma, I pulled a dusty, old January 1996 issue of All About Beer off the shelves. Turning to the letters section, I was pretty surprised by its contents. But first, please permit me a brief aside in order to provide some context.

As part of the Appellation Beer debate, I offered one obvious example of an ethical quandary relating to All About Beer’s Beer Talk section, which includes reviews from beer luminaries across the globe. For some time, the list has been comprised on John Hansell (editor of Malt Advocate Magazine), Steve Beaumont (beer writer/restaurateur), Charles Finkel (beer importer/distributor, brewery owner), Stan Hieronymus (beer writer/Appellation Beer), Charlie Papazian (president of Brewers Association), Jeff Evans (British beer writer), Roger Protz (British beer writer), and Garrett Oliver (brewer at Brooklyn Brewery). Each writer reviews four beers per issue for a total of sixteen products covered.

While there are many ethical guides and policies available for journalists to review, perhaps aspiring (and present) beer writers should review two basic sets. As one of the oldest organizations dedicated to representing the interests of a broad range of journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has created a straightforward and accessible Code of Conduct. Formed in 1909 and boasting nearly 10,000 members, I think it’s pretty safe turf on which to start a discussion of journalistic ethics. At the hear of SPJ’s code is the principle that “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.? Now what exactly does this mean? The code goes on to explain that:

Journalists should:
—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

In its brief tenure, the now defunct North American Guild of Beer Writers existed “to encourage writing that is informed, accurate and fair-minded on the subject of beer.? The NAGBW promulgated its own ethical code and asked members to “uphold professional standards through conduct that is legal, fair and honorable.? The NAGBW’s code, in part, suggested that members should:

Avoid conflicts of interest. Examples of conflicts of interest include (but are not limited to) the following: a) Writers, while employed in a public relations or spokesperson capacity, also writing about clients, client’s products, client’s competitors, or sponsoring organizations, in an editorial capacity, without also disclosing current employment;

Each of the SPJ and NAGBW points raise some red flags for many beer writers but let’s stick for the moment with the All About Beer Magazine example. In journalism, the law, and other professions, the standard one is held to is not an actual conflict but the appearance of a conflict of interest. It’s not that someone is inherently biased but that their position or particular situation might create the appearance of bias. As such, most publications (outside of the beer world) have stern rules about such conflicts. While I do not dispute that the eight men who participate in All About Beer Magazine’s Beer Talk section are not qualified to write reviews (I do question why the panel lacks one of dozens of similarly qualified women writers), that several of the panelists have at minimum a clear conflict of interest in reviewing the products is problematic. Of those listed, it appears to me that Finkel, Papazian, and Oliver probably should not be writing reviews due to their professional situations (Papazian as the professional organization leader of all small brewers) and Finkel and Oliver because they are reviewing the products of their competitors (or their own products if so assigned it is possible). To my mind, while these gentlemen might very well be good souls who can put aside any possible bias or conflict, this is not the applicable journalistic standard. Having brewers sit on tasting panels or allowing them to write articles in magazines and newspapers is a little like letting the vice-president of design for the Ford Motor Company write reviews of the newest line of Chevy’s in the pages of Car and Driver or the Detroit Free Press. The VP might really love the Chevy but if s/he criticizes it, you’ll never know whether their position influenced the opinion.

This has all been a very, very long-winded way of getting to that January 1996 issue. From its pages, I learned that the Beer Talk section gained some new members in the previous issues. Of these members, several of the above-named individuals joined the panel’s ranks. The response by consumers and members of the trade was surprisingly hostile, especially to Finkel’s participation. Here follows the text of some of the comments.

“Perhaps the AAB panels should be composed exclusively of non-partisan reviewers, like Fred Eckhardt and Charlie Papazian. Surely Daniel Bradford must feel confident about the panels, but there is obviously a potential for conflict of interest.? — Jim Dorsch

“Has anyone noticed that the prez of Merchant du Vin always trashes the best examples of his competition in All About Beer reviews. This month he spews about how Piraat (grand champion at this year’s California Beer Festival and heartily recommended by the other panelists) is a disgrace to Belgium and smells like rotten potatoes. Come on, this is not a matter of differing opinion but a commercial vendetta.? — Robert Rogness

“You might consider using judges that are not competing with the beers they are tasting.? — John Thomas, Gourmet Beer Society, Temecula, California

To his credit, Finkel was not shocked by the response. Allowed to respond, Finkel crafted a smart and honest defense.

“As you recall, when you first invited me to be a reviewer, I explained that I might not be the best choice since some readers might question my sincerity in reviewing competitive beers. I further explained that, no matter one’s commercial interest and level of expertise, a review of taste in which the critic sees the labels is never as good as a “blind review. We are all influenced, like it or not, by commercialism.

…I apologize if I have caused any ill feeling. That is never my intention. I refuse to be influenced by commercial greed… — Charles Finkel.

Daniel Bradford, editor and publisher of All About Beer Magazine, also added his thoughts on the conflict issue.

“Ed Note: When we purchased the magazine two years ago one of the biggest complaints about AABM was the lack of strong criticism by the reviewers. Most are writers and, contrary to popular opinion, writers are not universally disinterested. We invited Charles on board, fully familiar with his take-no-prisoners approach to beer reviewing, to balance out the other reviewers… — Daniel Bradford.

In terms of avoiding conflicts of interest, All About Beer Magazine’s Beer Talk section does a poor job. As the beer world is presently inhabited by a number of talented, independent writers, it would be quite easy to find suitable and experienced replacements. Beer Talk is a case where even disclosure of the conflict fails to alleviate the perception of bias, especially where the perception is entirely unnecessary (and well known, since at least January 1996). The conflict, perceived or real, is further puzzling and ironic as All About Beer Magazine’s publisher, Daniel Bradford, founded and administered the North American Guild of Beer Writers and likely had a hand in writing that organization’s ethical code.

I find it interesting that while All About Beer Magazine initially experienced some resistance to the conflict inherent in having a business person review the products of his competitors in a trade publication, the song remains the same more than twelve years later. And we no longer even give a second’s thought to the issue. I hope the issues raised on Stan’s website continue to be debated in much larger forums in the future. Along the way, I look forward to receiving the thoughts of brewers, consumers, amateur hobbyists, and my fellow beer writers.

–In the interest of full disclosure, I presently write for BeerAdvocate Magazine, where I pen the ‘Unfiltered’ column, and I also write a bi-monthly feature for Beverage Magazine. I occasionally also write for a series of other magazines, a list of which can be found on the ‘about Beerscribe’ page.

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3 thoughts on “Media Draft – Ethics and Beer Writing Continued…

  1. Very interesting but I think it may bust be a juxtapositioning:

    “…While your average journalism school graduate will have to take and pass a class involving a discussion of journalistic ethics, and the professional newspaper reporter is bound by his or her employer’s code of conduct, the hobbyist writer lacks any true ethical guideposts beyond their own creation or adoption.

    It is my belief that this lack of ethical guidelines has caused beer writing to lack professionalism…”

    I think you have left the impression that “hobbyist writers” are the cause of the problem yet you go on to criticize the holding of two professions in relation to beer when on of those is writing. If there is a problem, it is solely amongst the pros as hobbyists have no journalistic burden. That being said, I acknowledge I am a semi-pro in the way that I am a home brewer…and that is a little like a little learning.

  2. I think that it might not actually be so important to have a code of ethics for beer writing. I mean, it is just beer writing. It’s not like beer writers are investigative journalists looking to out the next commonly used cancer causing dish detergent. There isn’t much at stake in the beer world (though this is certainly a complicated claim).

    So what if “hobbyists” aren’t completely impartial? Does it really matter? What is the point of most beer writing anyway? Is it some sort of policing mechanism or is it just fun to write and fun to read about beer? This brings us back to Hieronymus’ original question, the point of beer criticism. I maintain that a lot of beer writing is not to police brewers. Sure that can be part of it, but what’s so wrong with a story that emphasizes the good over the bad? Can’t we just have a beer story that’s entertaining and informative without being constantly scrutinizing? Leave that to the investigative journalists. We don’t want their holier than thou attitude anyway. It’s not journalists that make the world go round. Mostly, they’re just there to tell everyone else what is making the world go round. And sure, I hope that they are truthful in their reporting, but I’m fine with beer writers taking some liberties, accepting free stuff, and gushing over the good while ignoring the bad, particularly when the bad isn’t that bad.

    Of course, as a “hobbyist” writer myself, I’m defending it. But at the same time a lot of your thinking about this seems to be influenced by a sincere contempt for hobbyist writers, as if they give you a bad name or hurt the field in some way. Every industry has hobbyist writers. If you’re so much better than a hobbyist just be confident in that and get over it.

  3. It’s interesting to see what I wrote about this topic many years ago. I don’t remember it, but it looks like something I’d write, so I expect I did.

    Long ago, the first time I edited American Brewer magazine, I became concerned about journalistic ethics in our business. I don’t recall the details (no surprise there!), but the bottom line was that when they receive free trips or other items of substantial value, they should acknowledge this in their writing. I wrote an editorial about this, and it upset a few folks.

    Paid trips are common in the magazine business, but I almost never see them acknowledged in the resulting articles. In this sense, beer journalism might be ahead of its more mainstream cousins.

    Years ago I saw a prominent (to us, at least) beer writer run though a selection of beers on the Today Show. Later I learned that he was doing paid work for the brewers of the beers he’d shown. Needless to say, this was not mentioned on the show. Based on that, I would say some beer publications can be trusted more than a major television network.

    Many of the conflicts in beer coverage are at beer papers, whose writers often receive free beer at local breweries and pubs. These are small things, but they could be quite important at the local level.

    Trust is a slippery slope. People you can trust have no qualms acknowledging goods received, and would also admit that this might bias them. People you shouldn’t trust say no such thing. Who are they? It’s hard to tell.

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