Friday, March 5, 2010

The ethics of food writing.

Coincidentally, three weeks ago I started a Gastronommy draft about my disapproval towards today's so-called "foodies," Food Network whores, the crappy saturated food blogosphere across the globe (maybe mine included!), and picky eaters who have decided to eliminate entire food groups from their diet for exasperating reasons.

Two weeks later, I pick up an issue of TimeOutHK sitting on my colleague's desk in our Duke's Group office.  I flip through and notice a review on TBLS and generally approve, as the writer and I seem to be on the same page about that restaurant.  Later I see a column by the same writer about food bloggers.  I found the article relevant to my original post and was actually going to link to it, not realizing who exactly she was referring to in her anecdotes.  A week later, some minor silliness unravels in the digital world... as you may have noticed from my previous entry.

I've decided to copy and paste my comments on that previous entry here along with some additions.  I don't know if I'm going to post my draft from three weeks ago anymore, since half of it is now covered below.  But we'll see.

Quote from my comment in previous entry (slightly edited):
On topic, what's interesting to note is that after my post on TBLS on Feb 3, linked my entry quite a number of times, including directly to TimeOutHK. One week later, a review of TBLS by TimeOutHK AND their  "Bloggers shouldn't be allowed to blog" column.  Hmm....
--Just forming theories and insinuations. ;)
(I'm joking, guys... half joking anyway)

What's funny is that the writer of this article and the dyslexic FoodInsider don't seem to realize is that I actually agree for the most part with her Blogger-hate attitude and food journalism ethics.   Particularly her categories of food blogs:
"Many blogs fall into one of three categories: the ego-driven nobody who power-trips with his iPhone, writing negative, knee-jerk reviews if they are not fawned over at restaurants; the “I took my mom to ____ and we liked ____ very much” variety; or the worst of the breed, the marketing spiel disguised as a personal blog."  

Some writers are elitist when it comes to dining and food writing.  But I'm very cool with that.  As dear friends and family already know, admittedly I too am elitist about those who choose to label themselves foodies.

 I can't stand wannabe food writers who blog about food, simply because they eat.  They don't research or understand how to completely appreciate food or all of the hard work that may have gone into the establishment.  I also can't stand lazy food journalists (rampant in HK for that matter), who nag restaurants for free tastings and end up taking one or two bites, before taking advantage of the free alcohol and copy+paste press releases.  From personal experience, I've seen certain HK food writers parade into Duke's Burger and our other establishments literally saying to our staff, "Don't you know who I am?"  In an IDEAL world, I expect established food journalists around the globe to follow the New York Times' standards: at least 3 visits, stay anonymous, try as many items as possible on the menu, research, and get the facts right.  Additionally, editors should not be influenced by their advertisers.  I've also personally experienced advertisement salesmen of well-known publications in Hong Kong who have made promises to influence their editors to write about our various restaurants if I chose to advertise with them.  These things happen.  That's life.

Where the writer of this article and I divide (besides the writer's nonsense victoria-hidden-identity-bullshit) is her inability to get with real life and understand how media is edging towards the digital, whether we like it or not; that restaurants giving free tastings to bloggers is all part of the marketing and PR scheme. The common blogger, regardless of their writing quality, integrity or intentions, have some power. At the end of the day, restaurants are a business.. and the common restaurant patron often uses the internet as their first source of food-research.

This TimeOutHK writer and others need to accept that reality and work with it before they get left behind. If she truly cares about the ethics of food writing in the blogosphere, perhaps she should stop with the petty gossip and should instead be using her journalism power towards making movements to standardize laws or regulations, similar to the US Federal Trade Commission's new regulation on requiring consumer-driven blogs to state when an article is actually an advertorial or based on complimentary products and services.

As for this statement in the TimeOutHK column:
"The last category is harder to spot if you don’t do the due diligence. Some of the most respected food bloggers keep their identities hidden for anonymity, but if you cover the food beat, then you’ll know instantly which ones are blood relatives of people running various restaurant groups."

First, I'm going to completely ignore the part about anonymity as it is completely irrelevant to me (see previous entry notes on this, if you want to be updated on the story).  I will be completely straightforward and say that I speculate that this writer either has a grudge against me or she's simply deluded if she still believes her original accusation.  The bizarre accusation being that I am hiding my identity, hiding my affiliation with Duke's Group, hiding my relationship to my father (owner of Duke's Group), hiding my affiliation with Gastronommy, and thus she implies Gastronommy is being used for ulterior motives.  From what I know of her writing, background, education, and mutual friends, she originally struck me as a relatively aware and logical human being.  Her accusations and implications about me on her Twitter are surprisingly irresponsible and quite disappointing. As a journalist, she should get her facts right.  As a person, she should show some grace and admit the error. ...but I digress.

So let me ask you guys this, unless the industry-related blogger is using his/her blog as an advertising platform or other gray-area means, isn't it to be expected that the individual has a keen interest on the topic as a hobby as well?  Is it really that surprising if someone who grew up in a vineyard to end up blogging about wine?  Is it wrong?  If anything, I'm personally interested in food blogs written by waiters, chefs, line-cooks, restaurateurs, baristas, cashiers, farmers, doorbitches etc as it gives another perspective and insight I otherwise might not have realized.

A second question:
Should non-paid bloggers of any genre, be expected to uphold the same responsibilities as a paid journalist?  Is it fair to demand that they always include proper disclosure, honesty and research?

Out of personal values and integrity, even with Gastronommy being purely a casual personal hobby-blog, I hold myself to the same responsibility.  However, I'm quite torn about expecting the same from the thousands upon thousands of other bloggers in the world.  Hobby-blogs are a personal matter, so I feel self-righteously demanding the same is not my place.  I figure the quality blogs (or the entertaining gag-worthy cheap blogs) will rise and the rest will naturally fade into the shadows.

I shall leave you with my sleepy late night thoughts.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Interesting post. Foodie bloggers do have a responsibilty, as much as any print critic, to be accurate and fair with their reviews. Digitizing of media is really making inroads into all fields. On the plus-side, less trees needlessly chopped down.

  2. As we go through life, we have to be responsible for our own actions and to bear the consequences, whether we like it or not. Regardless of the medium of expression, you must be responsible for your opinions and to be able to own up to them when the occasion calls for it. That said, I don’t think that it should make a difference whether as a blogger, you’re paid to write, just as a journalist is. We have to be responsible for the things we say ALL THE TIME.

    I think that as a blogger, there is in fact, added responsibility with regard to truths in facts that you may put out, especially since there is a higher chance that your words could reach a much bigger audience, as compared to a journalist writing for a daily which is usually circulated to a limited number of people. With information so easily accessible simply by going online, bloggers should take care to ensure that there is accuracy in facts. Bloggers shouldn’t however have to censor themselves to a point where self-expression is almost impossible. We are all entitled to our opinions, whether we post them online or are just telling one other person.

    Granted though that people do make mistakes, so if you may have posted a factual inaccuracy, simply present a correction. Why attempt to argue your way out of it or worse still, insist that you are right? How far do people actually think lies and rumours will take them? Admitting to a mistake makes you more human and in the blogosphere, I think even more relatable to the audience/readers. I’ve never known a print journalist to insist on NOT producing a correction, even in the face of facts.

    Stop being idealistic and step into the real world people!

    I grew up in a family of hoteliers and that’s the oft-used one-liner I use when I want to talk about the roots of my love for the F&B industry. Having lived and breathed food, drinks, people and the nightlife it in the last 5 years just means that I’ve developed an understanding of the industry and an opinion about it. It doesn’t mean that just because I’m in the F&B industry, I can’t visit other eateries and have an opinion about them! Maybe I shouldn’t be as vocal about my comments, especially if we live in a smallish community where everyone knows everyone else. But I should definitely have a view about it… Especially if they’re my competitors. Doesn’t that make perfect sense when it comes to running a business?! There is no “conflict of interest” if I’m working for an F&B group and blogging about food and my experiences at other eateries. There is only a “conflict of interest” if I’m working for 2 competing restaurants/companies at the same time.

    (If anyone needs an English lesson, let me know. Journalists and bloggers all welcomed =P)

    Keep up what you’re doing hunny. As long as you know you’re fully responsible for all that you think and say, fear no one and nothing. You’re great at what you do, so chin up and stay REAL. Lies and rumours can only stay “alive” for so long… There’s a Chinese idiom that comes to mind at this point but I’ll share it with you some other time =)


  3. BEST DRAMA EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    oh man that last post twitterific or whatever was pretty awesome. YES YES YES. i love online banter. and that foodinsider dude can suck some serious cock, pardon my french, TWAT.

    on a more serious note. it's a bit erroneous for people to bunch journalists and bloggers in the same camp. different role -> different purpose -> different audience. for the most part, for ex. the nyt, the reviews that people take seriously are the official star ratings of extremely high-caliber establishments. the paper has the nyt food blog for everything else, which are mainly personal thoughts and general comments about trends and casual dining.

    it's hard since hk isn't as developed compared to ny or london when it comes to professional review of restaurants.

    bloggers aren't there to take over journalists and vice versa. plus it's within the liberty of the restaurant to decide whether or not they want to treat a blogger to a free meal to get their thoughts or review if the establishment holds that person to a high degree, knowing the chance that the review might not be a favorable one, like with any review.

    the most asinine thing is when people take certain reviews extremely seriously without trying the place. as you heard me say before, always try the food for yourself if you're curious, then have an opinion.

    and yes i agree with you re: people who just want free meals.
    i wish someone gave me free meals......

  4. first of all i think food writing is an exciting area of blogging/journalism or as the two begin to meld into one thing, we'll be pressed for names, that being the case, you heard it here first, "blournalism". as we can see, the intersections of V's life 2.0 and first-life are getting really complex right, maybe even a bit (looks both ways cautiously, whispers) postmodern?

    what with, mistaken identities (the part in the last post where Victoria demands that her name be mentioned correctly got really meta to me; more than evidence corroborating a mere fact (factual knowledge of the correct spelling of a name) it was evidence that corroborated a person, a living being, and it all hinged on the presence or the absence of this empty signifier "u", a minor point that makes no difference to a native chinese speaker, but to V, meant entirely, the embodiment of an individual's reputation and physical being. there was this precariously but powerfully human point where, not out of fear of disappearing, V insists upon the correct spelling of her name to stake a valid claim on a piece of social space (which has always been a colletion of identities, even the intertubes) that is quickly either flying out of the collective grasp into the hands of big money or big politic)

    holy shit, and this is just (sorry V! but to make a point) just *some food blog* right? and this dogged pursuit of what the "real truth" is, the reflexive search for identity that hounds the internet user, when all this comes really close to the whole idea of "hey i'm not in 100% control of who i am, it is always, this negotation between what i say and this whole abyss of all these "Other People" (Other for short)... because, @nietzsche when you tweet into the abyss...

    this has the effect of entering homo-facebookicus into this whole new level of subjectivity and positive self consciousness. without a doubt. its freeing to be thrown into this roiling sea of amorphous identities, its a type of a loss of control, a queer omnipotence, but its also pretty terrifying.

    very well, the whole blogosphere is such that we could examine similar themes emerging in blogs about... airplane parts right? well, nope, food blogging, interests in food, discoveries of unique foodways, food and science, food history food and politics, food and economics, is suddenly this intellectual space where things that are deeply personal, (food is something that gets inside you, right? how many *other* not food related things make it *inside* you? besides germs and aliens) this deeply personal thing, food, links all these uncommon nodes together in this single language, a language of intimate social relationships, vulernability, and physical/emotional' sustenance.

  5. the literature that barely scratches the surface of what can be said about food like reviews and cookbooks is already so dazzling and enthusiastic, passionate and infinite that it excites to me to think how far our discourses about food will go, and how they will not only seriously interrogate really fucked up things about our society (like economic crises/oil shocks = foot shortages or fuck, you name it, all the way to obesity and your mom oversalting dinner all the time) but how it can truly elevate people sublimely. OKAY haha sorry. well you see, food can make cynics into wax poets.

    that being said its vitally important that there are certain rules and ethics- no doubt. this almost alarming state of contingency that a lot of what of modern life is trembling on around is something that A.Wong mentions in her article, the disastrous effects of a few words of an ill-informed intern on the lives of dozens of people (owners and employees, their families, etc.), the butterfly that farts in the north pole causing an earthquake in haiti -it necessarily implies that we form an ethical framework or sit rocking back and forth, sucking our thumbs in the face of the juggernaut of a million lilliputian phantasms.

    at these particular crossroads of panic, where a cultural threat (this type of people affect the sanctity of this-type-of-ritual/institution/practice/general society) and an economic threat (these type of people are duping other people) become reinforcing evidence of the presence of a seemingly unstoppable intruding "them" (the sea of faceless, lurking bloggers ready to PK your avatar's gold money sack of ), not to mention the rigorous self policing and "due diligence" to investigate those within the society that are practicing dissimulation or aren't "pure" (lying bloggers vs. honest-gee-shucks-reporters), creates these negative tendencies wherein the push is for more control, less freedom, trying to entertain the idea that hey, if we just do (y) then things will be like how it was when it was (x) and things were sweet (like back in the day, when there weren't no AKs).

    because fundamentally it lacks a critically larger perspective about all this other shit that food journalism is about, not just the dying art of restaurant reviewing, but politics, identity, race, culture, economics- i doubt if Angie Wong is seriously entertaining a discussion about equitable status for creative types (some of the same things going on in the copyright-o-sphere), i'd implore A.Wong to ask herself what kind of culture of shitty foodways produces the shitty lying food blogger? what sorts of access to the privilege of leisure, education and capital is necessary to immure oneself in these little delicate culinary cocoons, there are by far more egregious examples of lying i'm sure, in "the industry", of which i'm not a part of, than a blogger that is not being total honest. and this is assuming that A.Wong could be missing the point entirely as V demonstrates, that in her case it is completely a matter of how our personal histories and food histories are something unique when they come together. what's inequitable is the rigidity of A.Wong's categories and of course the aforementioned problems of how she views the proble of this unfettered freedom.

  6. what is this new ethics by the way, like i haven't digressed enough times from whatever point i was trying to make? the new ethics out there is democratizing, and its socialist- it attempts to recapture the means of production, the means of production of our culture and histories, our food cultures and food histories. i will not let people like A.Wong speak for me, in that, the enjoyment i derive from food is not just this atomistic, formula of concocted ingredients + ambience + service filtered through a colander of privileged experience, in the same exact way i will not let this frozen dinner be the a priori expectation of what a "pasta primavera" should look and taste like. i'm teetering very precariously here on that thin red line of "that's my subjectivity, folks" and completely useless relativist nihilism. we need rigorous inquiry into the things we put in our mouths, we need experts, but we should never forget the ability to question those experts.

    all these *other* things outside of food, identity, history, culture media is necessary to elevate the culture of foodways to produce a self regulating ethics of communal knowledge sharing. knowledge sharing networks are unique in contemporary media studies, but knowledge sharing networks, where people just help each other out with advice for no other reason, is tied in with ancient old timey gift giving societies. back in the day before homo-facebookicus, villagers exchanged gifts with other villagers, (instead of catty comments), the sum total of which did not make one tribe or the other wealthier, defying all our assumptions about the other homo in the room, homo-economicus, it was a self regulating ethics of social solidarity, a ritual that helped to avoid war, the ritual of trust and like secret santa, it was fun. communities can be positively regulated rather than punitive already exist- developer communities of open source stuff- a place where johnny-no-nothing amateur can test his chops on some real big shit programming shit without fear of ridicule, not barring l33t PWNAGE however.

    so let me close out this late night-early morning literary abortion right here, by saying, food bloggers can be held accountable, not just by changing what is within the scope of food culture/food literature, but by expanding the total geography of its coordinates.

    and in line with this whole theme of full disclosure, i use to know V back in the day (where it wasn't nothing for a boy to get a straight fade), and so to counter any acccusations that i may be sympathetic to her just because of that, i did use to hate her guts totally :)

  7. Okay. The last 3 comments were tl;dr.

    Just FYI.

  8. That's interesting that someone would think a blog would have a bigger audience than a regular publication. I guess that'd be truer for smaller towns, but you'd think Hong Kong people would have their own respected food critics with a little more clout. Huh.

    Anyways, I'm of the opinion that blogging is completely different from newspaper reporting, even in instances like the Ist sites. I'm also of the opinion that most people can tell the difference between a blog and a newspaper and understand that each are filling different niches. A blog's something you get to know, that you comment on, that you develop a personal understanding of before you follow any advice they give you - almost the same way you'd get to know a friend before you follow any advice they give you.

    A newspaper is, at least it was supposed to be, a more authoritative voice compiled by a large staff that actually has the resources to dedicate to doing things.

    I mean, part of the appeal of combining forces - to have a blogger in your newspaper staff - is that a blog can post up things quicker than newspapers, sometimes getting the scoop if a rumor turns out to be true - but it'll always be the newspaper that gets to do the more in depth reporting, gets to do the features, gets to really take a step back and say "this is how it fits in this context." Granted, it doesn't always work out that way, but that seems to be what MSM media wants ideally to happen.

    But I think I might be digressing. Do you, as a food blogger, have a responsibility to your audience to throw up a complete and accurate profile? Not really. It'll help you establish credibility, and I'm sure your audience would appreciate it, but by no means is it necessary. Though that seems to be a moot point, considering your pics and your resume are scattered all over the site.

  9. Yes on the fact you want to be that nice and share your experience with everyone, but i also have to say no cause if its something that's going to have the coming back for more or a family Secret then i would just keep it for myself.

    second question, yes if you want people to know that you and your place is doing everything right and not have the reviews try to put words in you mouth



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