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New ACCC guidelines for online reviews

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By Kaye Blum

As a 21 year old emerging writer, I was incredibly excited to land my first writing job reviewing gigs in a popular weekly street press magazine. I wouldn’t be paid for my work of course – the publication was free to readers and relied on advertising revenue to survive. But I would get a byline – my name would be in print – that was exciting! And that was over 20 years ago, well before the emergence of the internet. These days pretty much anyone can have a byline online.

I didn’t see myself as a critic, more of a reporter, providing punters with an insight to a particular performance or event as I’d experienced it. As a local music fan, I was thrilled to get my name on the door to see some of my favourite bands.

But I soon discovered it wasn’t all fun and games, I had to work. I needed to take a few notes (pre-smartphone-with-recorders era), which I preferred to do discretely (not easy in a dimly lit room with no tables). I had to stand where I could get the best quality sound, which was usually by the mixing desk. But I also needed a clear view of the stage and I’m not very tall. Needless to say, I had to be on the ball, so drinking wasn’t an option. And back then, I was fond of a bevvy or three at a gig.

Then came the actual writing process. And this didn’t come easily at first. I was a perfectionist and wanted my piece to sound as good as the music I’d heard. Well, close enough, anyway. I remember at times toiling away on a draft all night, sometimes until dawn, to file my review before deadline. Lead times were short – there was an editor and a pre-press process to go through before hitting that marvellously historic invention, the printing press.

When the weekly edition hit the streets, I’d race out to the nearest distribution point (usually a pub or record store) to grab a copy. I’d flick through the pages at lightning speed until I found my article. Week after week, my reviews were published verbatim.

One week, however, it was possibly my eighth or ninth review, I read my work in print and the colour drained from my face. It had been changed. A whole line had been removed and another added, which clearly altered the opinion I had articulated from my viewing experience of the gig. These were not my words, and they did not reflect what I had witnessed. But the review still had my name on it. 

I raced home and rang the editor. Why did you change my piece? What was wrong with it? Well, she explained, the headline artist’s record company is a major advertiser in our magazine; and your review wasn’t very favourable of him. What? It wasn’t directly critical or blatantly negative. Why couldn’t you call me first to discuss it with me? If it really had to change to something I didn’t actually experience I’d have asked you to take my name off it altogether. I put down the phone.

I never wrote for them again. In fact, I never reviewed again, until the past year. After living in London for six years from the mid Nineties and witnessing how some critics, particularly theatre critics, would sit in the front row with their pen and pads practically waving about as if to say, look at me, I’m very important to your production. And unfortunately, they did have the power to make or break a production with their reviews, depending on the publication they wrote for.

But isn’t a review just an opinion? It might be an educated and informed opinion, it might not. The reviewer’s experience can be impacted by so many factors – an exhausted performer, dodgy equipment, a catastrophe in the kitchen. There are factors that might not be apparent. And how informed is the reviewer? Are they an expert in the field they’re critiquing? Or are they just another punter? It varies. Dramatically. Especially now with the internet, because pretty much anyone can publish a review on a wide range of platforms, from TripAdvisor to their own blog.

Some review platforms publish anonymous reviews, so there is little or no accountability. Anyone can say anything. And they do. Everyone’s a critic. When it comes to online comments, anonymity gives some cowards the opportunity to say things they wouldn’t dare put their name to.

But maybe not for much longer.

Late last year, YouTube changed the way comments are managed* and moderated by requiring a Google+ ID login to comment. In a recent SlideShare presentation from JWT Intelligence called 101 Things To Watch In 2014*, slide number 97 predicts verified reviewers as the way forward, citing platforms such as Amazon and Google Play as already utilising a form of verification.

In an effort to address the increase of fake positive reviews and potentially business-destroying defamatory ones, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) published new guidelines to online reviews* for both businesses and review platforms in November 2013. While honest reviews can be helpful for consumer decision-making, the increase in fake positive and contrived negative reviews has serious implications.

The ACCC publication provides guiding principles on transparency of commercial relationships, reviews presented as impartial that are not, and editing or omission of reviews that can be misleading.

Disclosure of any incentive given to review is vital. When I added a review section to Tweed Scene last year, I updated my About page to disclose my reviewing principles in an effort to maintain the integrity of the site. After completing MEAA’s Australian Media Law and Ethics training in December, I was glad I’d instinctively chosen transparency on Tweed Scene, but even more grateful to have a deeper knowledge of Australian defamation laws.

Personally, I’m all for transparency, integrity, and reviewer verification. So I hope JWT Intelligence’s prediction for 2014 comes true. Meanwhile, for all those reviewers and bloggers out there who aren’t accredited journalists, best you familiarise yourself with the ACCC’s guidelines, pronto 🙂

*Accessed 15/1/14

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Written by Kaye Blum

January 17, 2014 at 12:37 pm

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