The Austin Food Blogger Alliance Weighs Ethics Against Charity

Categories: Food Policy

Texas is ablaze today, wildfires ravaging Bastrop and threatening small towns outside of Austin. Fifty-seven fires are burning across 100,000 acres of Central Texas, and more than 1,000 homes have been destroyed since this latest rash of fires broke out on Monday. And in Austin, local bloggers are trying to do something about it.

It's a typical response from the blogger community in Austin, which is tightly knit and has always stepped up to offer support when it's needed, whether to area residents devastated by wildfires or to complete strangers like New York food blogger Jennifer Perillo.

Perillo recently lost her husband and was left with two small children to care for alone; food bloggers around the country rallied to help Perillo, including many Austin-based food bloggers like Penny De Los Santos (who is, coincidentally, in the process of moving to NYC). De Los Santos, a photographer for Saveur, is auctioning off an opportunity to go on assignment with her for a day, while other bloggers organized national bake sales and auctioned off their own high-dollar items for Perillo's benefit.

"That's how we, as bloggers, should be spending our time," said Natanya Anderson, president of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance. "To me, these are the kinds of things that show what organized bloggers can do." The AFBA was created earlier this year after local food bloggers had been spending increasing amounts of time assembling potluck dinners and charity functions along the same lines as the response to Jennifer Perillo's situation.

"We realized our collective power as a group to do good in the community could be harnessed," Anderson said over the phone last week. "There were a handful of people who had one-on-one conversations, but there's enough of us that we all talk to each other. If we did something a little bit more formal we could have a bigger impact on the community as a whole."

By this past Spring, the AFBA was born: a formal non-profit that seeks to support "each other and our community through classes, social events, and philanthropy." It's the first of its kind in the country.

In a sense, the AFBA is similar to the Houston Chowhounds organization: a large amount of time is spent hosting events for its members, with proceeds going to benefit local charities. But it's also wholly different, an organization that was created by and for food bloggers -- a segment of the blogosphere that's been growing exponentially in the past few years -- and one that expects its members to adhere to a strict code of ethics.

Courtesy of Louis Gray
It's this aspect of the AFBA that's most intriguing, especially in light of the nearly two-year-old FTC rule that mandates bloggers must disclose any relationship with advertisers. That is, if a blogger -- food blogger or otherwise -- reviews a product (or a meal) that was given to them for free, it must be disclosed up front. The AFBA's code of ethics also covers copyright infringement issues, from photo use to plagiarism.

"We spent a lot of time trying to think through how to create guidelines that are workable," said Anderson.

"If you're going to position yourself as a reviewer and position yourself as a journalist, you should adhere to the same code of ethics as a journalist. We really are serious about you don't take other people's work, you are thoughtful about everything you post about another person."

To that end, the AFBA holds seminars and workshops for its members, teaching them to be "thoughtful" about their work and how to protect themselves against copyright infringement, as well as how not to infringe on other writers' or photographers' rights.

"There are a lot of people out there who take each other's content," said Anderson. It's an issue that former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh was all too familiar with, having his own work ripped off by the Montgomery County Bulletin in 2008 and stolen by the Ocala Magazine in 2009.

No one wants to be this guy. On purpose, at least.
In Anderson's world, it's recipe-driven blogs that get ripped off most often. But she doesn't believe that the word thieves have malicious intent. "I think people are coming to it with widely varying knowledge, and then seeing other people do what is inherently wrong," she said. "There aren't a lot of resources where you can go and learn about, say, the top 10 things I need to know about blogging ethics."

And in that regard, the AFBA is a welcome organization in an atmosphere where ethics is so rarely discussed.

Take, for example, the recent International Food Bloggers Conference in New Orleans. In the entire three-day agenda, not a single session was held on ethics, copyright, or any other important legal issue. Ditto Camp Blogaway, whose parade of speakers covered trivial matters such as food styling and engaged in more troubling sessions like "Catching the Eye of Corporations." Yet no mention of ethics was to be found in its programming.

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