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Being irresponsible (Sins of blogging)

Series: Seven deadly sins of blogging

by Tom Johnson on Oct 17, 2009
categories: blogging technical-writing

Being irresponsible is the fifth sin in my ongoing series on the Seven Deadly Sins of Blogging (other sins include being fake, irrelevant, boring, unreadable, unfindable, and inattentive). Blogging responsibly includes awareness of proper disclosure, approvals, and representation, as well as avoiding sensationalism in the posts you write.


Recently the FTC updated the rules about proper disclosure when receiving compensation for promoting a product or service in a blog post. Fines for failure to properly disclose compensation could be up to $11,000. The FTC states:

While decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

The need to disclose material compensation seems easy enough, right? Readers feel cheated when proper disclosures aren't given. Still, it can be hard to do.

In a recent book review of Anne Gentle's Community and Conversation, Sarah O'Keefe is careful to add the following:

[Disclosure: I reviewed an early draft of this book. I have met Anne in person a few times and we have ongoing email and blog correspondence.]

When I first read her disclosure, I was surprised. It didn't seem that necessary to me. Nevertheless, I appreciated it. In my book review, I probably didn't disclose as much as I should have. I did mention the fact that I received a free copy of the book, but I could have also added that I've met Anne several times at conferences, that we interact on the Intercom article advisory board, and that links to her book in my post point to my Amazon affiliate page.


A while ago Penelope Trunk wrote a post revealing some intimate information that seemed to cross boundaries of what was appropriate. She followed up with a post on How to blog about a co-worker or someone close to you. In her follow-up post, she explains the predicament:

What you know the most about is what you can offer the most insight about. And you probably know that telling stories is  always more compelling than talking in generalities. But if you tell stories, you need people to be in the stories. So if you want to write insightfully, then using stories about people close to you makes sense.

Writing about a co-worker is similar to writing about a sex partner: you know a lot about the person, both good and bad. So you could ruin your relationship by writing about them. So you have to get good at writing about co-workers without pissing them off.

Penelope hits the issue right on target: you need to include story to avoid boring your readers, but sometimes including all the details of the story violates your relationships with your "characters," who are real people with independent lives.

As bloggers we sometimes want to write posts that share frustrating or juicy experiences that happen at work, but we have to refrain, make the details more general, because we don't want to jeopardize our relationships at our jobs. As Penelope says, omitting these details often means omitting the story. Sure enough, when I do this, my posts are more boring.

Penelope's compromise is to show your posts to people before clicking the publish button. I had no idea she gave her characters veto rights, but she does:

I explain to them that they will always have veto rights, so they don't have to worry about what they do or say with me. They are always surprised, and they are always relieved.

Her advice works well to keep you from stepping over the line. If you would feel uncomfortable showing the post to your characters, you may want to rethink the post.

As a blogger, sometimes the people I talk with are cautious about what they say to me (and rightly so). For example, at last year's STC Summit, I had lunch with Alan Houser, chair of the conference. I was asking him some details about sessions that were canceled, and he was careful to let me know what I could and couldn't say on my blog. As he spoke, I sometimes felt a bit like a journalist, even though I wasn't even considering a post at the time. To put people at ease, let them know they will have veto rights before you publish anything.


Because I'm a full-time employee rather than an independent consultant, I'm aware of the way I'm representing my organization. I've deliberated about whether I should even include my organization's name in my About page, but I did. I'm in a peculiar situation -- I work for the IT department of the LDS Church, aka the Mormons.

Because of my position, I'm careful to avoid any views on my blog that might be at odds with my organization. Fortunately, I don't write about political, religious, or even cultural topics -- the focus of my blog is "safe." I don't have any views that would be at odds with my employer anyway. But the way I represent myself on my blog is something that's on my mind before I publish anything.

The story of Chez Pazienza is a good one to consider in a discussion about representation. Chez was a CNN producer fired because of the views he expressed on his blog. When I first heard about Chez, I assumed he'd been writing crazy, off-the-wall posts or posting rumors and gossip about colleagues or revealing confidential company information (like the Twitter messages here).

But really, Chez is an intelligent, polished writer who felt that mainstream media was losing its fire, succumbing to shareholder-encouraged stories and shying away from the real stories. He found blogging to be an outlet to pursue real issues and to express his voice (Say What You Will: Requiem for a News Career). However, the liberal bent on his blog conflicted with the more conservative, unbiased reporter role he needed to maintain at CNN, so they let him go.

Chez's story made me realize that it's not so much the irresponsible rants against your boss or the inappropriate revealing of co-worker details that gets you into trouble. It's the expression of an improper point of view, however eloquently expressed. If your position is at odds with your company's point of view, it can make your employer think twice about keeping you around.


The final consideration in responsible blogging is to avoid sensationalism. Often times it's tempting to push an extreme position to get attention. This can be a strategy for raising awareness of an issue. But if you're constantly rocking the boat just to get attention, to attract controversy and comments, that's irresponsible blogging.

For example, last year I posted a survey on my site about whether other technical writers felt the profession of technical writing was "a sellout or fallback career." I didn't think much of my poll. These were terms a colleague who teaches literature at a university told me his students used to describe technical writing. I was preparing a presentation for the students, so I wanted to have raw data to refute their preconceptions.

Maybe tech writers were bored that day, but the Techwr-l listserv went wild with my poll. They thought I was purposely being controversial just to attract attention from their listserv. Here are a few of their comments:

I declined to vote because I suspect the author might have phrased it carefully to evoke just this sort of "discussion" and, to me, it seems a pointless question otherwise. (Geoff)

Here's an ironic twist to the conspiracy theory that the writer of the question wrote the question in a way to start a discussion. A web search of the question will point to this list and techwr-l tends to get the higher search rankings, so its results appear first and will be ahead of the page with the poll. If the poll question was written to draw traffic, then the discussion may have a less than desirable effect for driving traffic. (Lauren)

Did you read the actual poll? It was a discussion troll. Hey, I'm a poet, and I don't even know it! ;-) (Bill)

Although I didn't purposely intend to be sensational, purposes are often made irrelevant by perceptions. This bit of sensationalism got me into hot water, even if it did attract attention to my blog.


As you blog, remember that you have a relationship with your readers -- a relationship that requires you to disclose any important information, especially monetary, that might bias your views. Don't ruin relationships with those around you by revealing private details of their lives without approval. Ensure you don't represent your company in a negative light. And choose balanced, honest posts rather than sensationalism.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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