Friday, October 12, 2007

Dealing with a potential conflict of interest

Posted By on Fri, Oct 12, 2007 at 9:04 PM

There are many things that go on in the world of food writing that pose a possible conflict of interest. Restaurants offer free meals in exchange for reviews. Advertisers pressure publications for reviews and become upset if the reviews are not as positive as they had hoped.

I hope it goes without saying, but here at Creative Loafing we take our integrity very seriously. We visit restaurants anonymously, admit if we are recognized and always pay our own way. Our advertisers in no way affect whom we review or how positive those reviews are. A couple of weeks ago, when our Best of issue came out, my brother overheard a conversation in which a woman was claiming that we only give awards to our biggest advertisers, citing the winner of Best Seafood. Funny, we didn't give an award for Best Seafood. She must have been thinking of the Reader's Pick, Six Feet Under. I have no control over what you crazy readers pick, although sometimes I wish I did (Hooters for Best Looking Waitstaff? C'mon guys, have some imagination).

A few months back when my husband became the chef at a bar and restaurant in East Atlanta, I knew there was a potential for conflict of interest. The place is not somewhere I would usually review, and even if it were, I would obviously not write anything on it in this case. But it is exactly the type of place my colleague Cliff Bostock would cover in his Grazing column. I sent Cliff an e-mail saying that my husband was going to be chef at a new restaurant, and if Cliff wanted to write about it we would have to have full disclosure about the connection. Cliff sent me back an e-mail saying "Uh, I think I'll stay away from that." And that seemed like the end of it.

Then, two weeks ago, Cliff sent me an e-mail saying he was going to cover the restaurant in his upcoming column. I could tell he had completely forgotten about our previous conversation, and I decided to keep quiet, in the hope of getting a totally honest and unbiased review. But then, a snag in my plan ... Cliff sent in a blog post about his visit, two days before he was to turn in his column. If I put up the post, I would have to put a note about the connection, but then Cliff would be tipped off before he wrote his column.

So I held the blog post. When Cliff inquired about why the post hadn't gone up, I made something up. Well, that's not exactly true, but neither is what I told him.

When the column did come in for editing, I sent it over to Senior Editor Scott Freeman. I usually edit Cliff, but in this case Editor Ken Edelstein and I felt it was inappropriate for me to touch the column in any way. We didn't even tell Scott why he was editing the piece, but I have to admit that he figured it out pretty quickly.

All of this may seem slightly inconsequential, but the point is that we try our hardest, even in a situation where I am married to the subject, to be as ethical as we can and to be totally transparent about our process. If anyone ever has any questions about our methods, the editorial team at Creative Loafing welcomes them.

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