My blog is singularly focused on cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook, so when I started out I didn't think I'd have to worry about the pitfalls involved in doing reviews. Boy, was I wrong. On the whole, when I started the blog I set a few editorial standards for myself not only to maintain my sanity, but also keep myself in check should I ever be confronted with a tough decision or feel myself wavering on how to say something that someone else might not like. Before I ever put fingers to keyboard, my guidelines were and still are:
1) Tell the truth, but don't go out of your way to be an asshole just because you had a bad day and need to vent.
2) Always wait 24 hours before hitting the "publish" button. Go back and re-read the post and make sure you're being honest in your writing and your intent.
3) Know that you're not going to please everyone, and it's okay as long as you've been honest and can stand up for yourself and what you've written.
Much like I rely on journalists to report the facts of a story, I also rely on op-ed writers to have credibility and fortitude when it comes to tell me why they believe what they believe. In many ways, blogging straddles that line and it's a delicate balance. At the core, I believe it's about trust, honor and integrity, no matter what you write and no matter whom you write it for.
When it comes to food (and many other things), I rely on the opinions of those I've come to trust -- whether it's someone I've known forever, or something I've just learned about online. With trust comes responsibility (whether you like it or not), and I realized a few months into my blog that many of my readers were already beginning to trust me and the information I was providing about resources and purveyors, so I took it, and still do take it very seriously.
I've had great experiences with food purveyors, and I've written about those. And, I've had shitty experiences with food purveyors, and I've written about those. All with honesty and integrity, and the knowledge that if I were challenged on any of it, I could hold my head up high at the end of the day and be fine with what I published.
I can tell you're conflicted by this, so perhaps you may want to trust your gut and just shelve the story for a few days until you have some time to think about it. You should probably also write your own personal set of rules for the blog. I think when you're expected to review things, it's easy to become swayed by people offering freebies and insider info. It is flattering, but if this is something you take seriously (which it sounds like you do), then you should probably set some rules for yourself that you can freely share with those who send you things or offer their goods and services in exchange for the possibility of a review. A good friend of mine writes for Vanity Fair and the amount of free vacations and high-end luxury goods that come her way is astounding. She has a template letter and email that goes out to everyone who sends her something that thanks them for their generosity, but also ensures that in no way will it ensure a review, favorable or not.
You say that you're writing a series about a specific subject -- let's just say it's olive oil, for the sake of playing out this example. If I were to come to your blog and read only glowing reviews of every olive oil you'd ever tried, I would assume one of two things: a) you only posted reviews of the ones you liked and the ones you hated never saw the light of day; or, b) you're full of shit because not every olive oil is spectacular. There are duds and that's okay, because it's based on your informed opinion and your expertise in learning about and tasting different kinds of olive oil. So, in this series about olive oil (or whatever it is you're covering), you should be clear about what makes it into the series and what doesn't.
If you didn't like this particular product, it's okay to say so. It doesn't mean that you are condemning this man's entire establishment. In fact, perhaps you can even share some of the angst involved in not liking this product -- that the other things they make/sell have been great, which is why you go there, and that the owner was really helpful in providing you with background information on the product and you are grateful for his help, but that this particular item just didn't do it for you, which was a disappointment. Everyone has experiences like this, and talking about it openly may engage your readers in an interesting discussion about unmet expectations in the comments section of your blog.
You're not going to make everyone happy all the time. And, even though you may like this person, the world is not going to stop turning if you offer an honest critique of this one particular item. He may be angry, but that's his issue to deal with, not yours. You have to feel as if you are being honest without purposely intending harm for malicious reasons, and you have to know that your readers trust your opinion, and if you lead them astray, they'll figure it out and they'll go elsewhere.
Steven's point about having to cut a section of his book because it didn't help tell the story is an important one. Your words need to be engaging and ultimately need to tell the story of what is is you're writing about. If this "olive oil" experience helps tell the overall story, then you need to find a way to write it that carries out that intent. If not, then it should be easy to just move on.
I've blathered on long enough.... write yourself a set of editorial guidelines and stick to them. And know that it's okay not to like something. The sun will still come up tomorrow, and there will be plenty of other things for you to review and critique.
Edited by Diner Girl, 28 May 2008 - 04:41 PM.