CYRIL IS RIGHT, BUT DIDN’T GO FAR ENOUGH
by Andrew Chalk
Cyril Penn, editor of Wine Business Monthly, and long-time industry scribe gave the opening keynote at this year’s Wine Media Conference (formerly the Wine Bloggers Conference). The conference blog described his message as “Authenticity, being yourself, and providing insight all are important when it comes to wine writing. Be original, and always show your work!” I heartily agree with his comments, as described by these sentiments, but I think he should have gone further. The changing of the conference name from including ‘blogging’ to being part of the media is part of a general trend of including blogging with mainstream wine writing, aka journalism. Bloggers are the main beneficiaries of this as it portrays them as more of a profession and less of a group of tattood punks with green hair and big opinions untenured by any constraints except those that ‘felt good at the time’.
Journalists’ opinions can be big, but must be supported by facts, and reporting must include credible disagreement with any given opinion. Journalists will tell you of a code of ethics to which they subscribe. It may be that of the Society of Professional Journalists, of the publication itself (the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times each have their own code of ethics). These codes all attempt to deal with every situation where ethical questions arise. By far the most prominent issue is the primacy of reporting the truth.
Blogging grew up in the Internet era and the vast majority of practitioners neither went to journalism school nor worked for a professional news outlet. It is perhaps no surprise that ethics did not loom large in bloggers’ minds. At times this was embarrassing, as when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its Endorsement Guides in response to an explosion in pay-to-play blogging (i.e. a blogger promises a glowing review in response to a free copy of a product). This was essentially the FTC issuing parental guidance to a roomful of children who had got out of control. Even today there are bloggers (generally minor ones) who do not follow the FTC guidelines.
I was a casualty when the truth was a casualty earlier this year. An item in Cyril’s Wine Business Monthly Daily Newsletter of industry news caught my eye: “French Critics Rate Organic and Biodynamic Wines 6-12 Points Higher in Scores Compared to Conventional or Sustainable Wines, Wine Economists Find” by Pam Strayer. Organic and biodynamic agriculture are two of my interests so it was an important breakthrough if someone had finally shown that these forms of agriculture produce wines with higher critics’ scores. I went back to the primary source, a study by Magali Delmas of UCLA and Olivier Gergaud of Kedge Business School published in the Journal of Ecological Economics, and read the academic paper in detail. It turned out the scientists’ methodology had a flaw that was absolutely fatal. That is, it rendered their key relationship, that between scores and agricultural methods, unsupported. The error was that they did not include price in their model of wine scores. Therefore, the wines that scored higher, which they attributed to organic/biodynamic agriculture, were likely simply the more expensive wines. Since the relationship between price and quality in a given wine category is the single most regular, repeatable, explicable relationship, the effect of price has to be controlled for in order to measure the effect of the agricultural method. They had not done so.
I wrote up this conclusion (explained in greater detail) in an article and, to expedite publication, posted it on my blog. I emailed a copy to the original authors along with my contact information so that they could let me know their response and inform me of any errors in my analysis. Cyril obviously recognized the importance of the issue and posted a link to my blog article in next day’s WBM newsletter. So did the other industry publication, Wine Industry Advisor. The article got more hits than almost any other article on my blog (which, it should be said, is not exactly among the most widely read on the Internet). I had direct contact with the authors of the academic study shortly after.
I also sent a copy to Pam Strayer and ran across her blog. It turned out she was a blogger on organic and biodynamic wine, so I also added a comment, among the others, to her piece on the academic article along with a link to my blog piece. My comment never appeared. In fact, it appeared that only pro-organic/biodynamic comments appeared. Ms. Stayer, it appears, is an advocate for organic and biodynamic farming and most of her readers have similar sentiments.
So now she had an ethical dilemma. Evidence had appeared that contradicted the evidence she had reported. The professional industry newsletters felt it was credible enough to report. What should she do? Every single one of the Codes of Ethics reported above gave her the same answer. It was obvious. But, the content of her blog was one of the few things in the world over which she was all powerful. She had the power to suppress criticism, or to report it and debate it. Her solution was to suppress it, because she could. Nobody would ever know she had done it.
However, that was a big ethical mistake. I don’t know why Ms. Strayer suppressed my criticism, although her comment on my blog makes me question her understanding of scientific method “The price data was not included in the study because it was available for only 11,000 of the 128,000 wines. I hope you will take a look at the actual study. They did not set out to study prices and quality - only the relationship between farming practices and quality - which is already a very big topic and one they did an amazing job of analyzing.”
More generally, bloggers are confronted with ethical questions every day. As the practice grows up, bloggers need to subscribe to codes of ethics or they will face ongoing credibility questions. Who knows, maybe this will become a session at The Wine Media Conference.