Yellow Journalism, Universal Truths, and the Honesty of Beer

You want people to be honest with you.  That’s about as universal of a truth as you can get.  Otherwise, you’d be obligated to accept the reverse: I am okay with people not being honest with me. 

Here’s another universal truth.  Much of what appears on the internet is crap. Shocker, I know.

Enter FoodBabe and her undeserving popularity manufactured by an enviable ability to rally those who’d prefer not to think for themselves.

Or was that too harsh?

FoodBabe has millions of blog followers and others enamored with her self-proclaimed healthy lifestyle. She rallies her patrons to sign petitions calling for companies to make changes to their food products.  On her “About” page she lists her many “accomplishments.” Notably absent are any credentials.

Last year she wrote a post entitled “The Shocking Ingredients in Beer.”  It was a hugely successful post, making the rounds in circles far wider than her usual followers. I received it many times over as beer blogger and casual fan alike shared it with abandon – passed along and accepted as truth.

Almost as quickly, however, much of its contents were debunked by competent writers who took the time to investigate the claims. It didn’t matter.  Her claims continue to form the basis of a campaign to get all beer producers to list the ingredients used in each beer they produce.  AB-InBev already relented to a certain extent and Miller Coors appears to be following suit.

We do mostly walk blindly through life not knowing or caring about the entire composition of our favorite food and drinks.  We do it for two reasons: we don’t care that much, generally, and we want to believe no one would really put anything harmful in our food.

Naive, yes, but let’s pay homage to reality.

Thus, it’s hard to argue against asking (or even expecting) producers of anything we use and ingest to let us know what’s in it.  You might even call it one of those inarguable universal truths.  Otherwise, you’d be obligated to accept the reverse:  I am okay with people not telling me what’s in my food.

Yet, there is something entirely wrong with FoodBabe’s approach that proves another universal truth: having an agreeable purpose does not justify using improper means. 

I’m writing this because Jay Brooks, a professional journalist and freelance writer, penned the perfect editorial explaining what is wrong with FoodBabe’s approach. Yellow journalism, is how he characterizes it: 

It rarely matters that what’s written is often wrong, sometimes so utterly wrong that it should be embarrassing for not only the author, but the publication, too. And yet curiously, it’s not. And for me, that’s why it’s yellow journalism. 

Similarly, ran an editorial which called out mainstream media for reporting on FoodBabe’s “success” without the slightest acknowledgement about her questionable means:

That the media should give The Food Babe a free pass as an expert or as a credible consumer watchdog is especially troubling when you look at some of her other claims . . . . .  that if you expose water to the words “Hitler” and “Satan” it will change its physical structure in exactly the same way as if you microwaved it.

Frankly, I’m tired of reading and hearing about FoodBabe even as I’m guilty of prolonging the discussion with this post. And, frankly, I don’t care whether the ingredients are listed on my beer bottles and cans.  I know what’s in most beers and know what the FDA allows to be in beers.  If a brewer is using an unapproved or inappropriate ingredient, you can bet that brewer is 1) not going to list it even if required to do so; and 2) not going to tell me about it.

But this is not a conversation about beer labeling, a point some seem to have missed. (Fairly criticizing poor writing is not an attempt to define who gets to talk about beer. Rather, it’s an appropriate response to ensure poor writing and improper means do not go unchecked.)

Beer writing has received much criticism during the past year or so, perhaps best captured in a quote from Modern Times Brewery founder Jacob McKean in a piece appearing in the Voice of San Diego:  the “accessibility and casual vibe [of craft beer] leads countless uninformed observers to believe that they can authoritatively comment on craft beer. * * * In an industry with an almost total absence of real journalism, the cheerleading is virtually indistinguishable from the ‘reporting.”

Brandon Hernandez’s article “Truth in Beer Reporting and Other Novel Concepts” sparked a useful debate last August, taking on an issue most beer writers/bloggers avoid: there’s bad beer out there (and other negative subjects in craft beer) and we’re afraid to talk about it.

This is good criticism not leveled at any one person or generated by any one hack of a link-bait post.

It’s this criticism that led me to propose a panel discussion for the upcoming 2014 Beer Bloggers Conference in San Diego on ethics and best practices in beer writing.  We’re fortunate to have Jay Brooks and Brandon Hernandez participating. It’s a conversation well worth having.

Oliver Gray of Literature and Libation and I have been preparing materials containing a suggested code of ethics and a list of best practices. (We’ll release them after the conference.) Because professional journalists and writers have many codes of ethics applicable to a variety of writer subsets, our materials are aimed the casual beer writer/blogger. It’s a tall task to make it the least bit interesting, much less break through the “who cares” barrier.

Indeed, you may be one to wonder “who cares.” I do. I hope you do as well.

Do you have a favorite blog which does nothing but beer reviews?  Nothing to worry about there, right?  But what if you learned that $20 bottle of beer you just bought was recommended by your favorite blogger because he received it for free from a brewery that promised to keep sending them along?  Maybe it affected the review, maybe it didn’t.  But the blogger doesn’t get to make that choice.  Disclosure is key to allowing any audience to decide for itself.  Maybe that’s too trivial of an example, but what did FoodBabe receive for misrepresenting the contents of beer?

The accessibility of blogging is its greatest strength, its worst weakness and its biggest challenge. Our panel discussion is not designed for FoodBabe. Her interests do not align with concepts of disclosure, transparency and factual accuracy. Rather, the panel discussion is designed for those who understand the means employed are just as important as the ends.

These are the people you should follow.

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