Fashion journalism: An ethical sales bin?

30 January 2012

Written by: Matthew Smith

The rise of the fashion blogger is quickening the already fast-paced fashion industry. Information is so readily available that almost everyone refuses to pay for it. Fashion bloggers are filling up more and more front row seats at couture shows, providing instant access to runway collections for anyone with an internet connection.

Despite the many perks of style-based weblogs, their take on ethics – or lack thereof – often turns them into little more than a mouthpiece for the designer elite. According to Amy Levin, founder and creative director of CollegeFashionsta.com, the increasing number of fashion blogs makes it near impossible to monitor their content, increasing the occurrence of copyright infringement and plagiarism.

Truth be told, if you read fashion blogs, you have undoubtedly read plagiarised text or viewed a copyrighted image. As online blogs engulf cyberspace, separating the ethical from the not so ethical is like hunting for a designer handbag amongst a bin full of fakes; in the end, only a few have any real value.

In addition to this, the increasing profitability of fashion weblogs and the ability of their creators to cash in on free products, meet famous designers, and be profiled by Vogue is hard to resist.

In light of this, it is important that fashion bloggers have a clear understanding of what is legally and ethically required of them prior to starting their own weblog. Here are some important points to consider:

Give credit where credit is due

Because there are so many blogs that cover the fashion industry, from events to runway shows and haute couture collections, your content may not always be entirely original. If the show you wish to blog about is in Milan, and you’re on a student budget back home in Australia blogging from your bedroom, then obviously you won’t have your own photos.

According to Matt de Neef, a deputy editor at The Conversation, attributing credit to other sources is as simple as saying ‘This idea originally came from person x’. If you use someone else’s photos from New York Fashion Week, simply put at the end of your post ‘Images courtesy of x’ or ‘Images sourced from x.’

Alternatively, Jay Rosen from New York University describes in The Ethic of the link, the idea of using the hyperlink in order to link people rather than attribute sources. By linking readers to related information, he says we are ‘expressing the ethic of the web, which is to connect people and knowledge’. This idea is relevant particularly for fashion bloggers who publish a vast majority of opinion related reviews.

Linking readers, especially when citing earlier collections or notable fashion moments, provides them with a wider scope and allows a greater understanding of your own posts. Rosen’s idea of enabling education through the use of hyperlinks is one that all fashion bloggers should use when starting up their weblog.

Play the shoe, and not the foot.

When it comes to reviewing a collection or a product, Matt de Neef sticks to the idea of ‘Playing the ball and not the man.’ Restrict your comments to reflections on the collection or product, and avoid defamatory comments about the designer or creator.

He says if you dislike the product on offer, then be critical of that, within reason. The moment you step into critical attacks on a person, defamation and slander can occur, which may result in a law suit or the removal of your blog.

Alternatively, Amy Levin on her street style blogs focuses only on the positive. At CollegeFashionista, Style Gurus are instructed to only post photos of people who are fashion-forward, in turn eliminating any potential risk of slander or defamation.

Do not plagiarize or violate copyright

Ensuring you don’t copy and paste entire articles and image galleries from other content creators is mandatory when starting your own fashion blog. Your credibility as a writer and commentator on the fashion industry will stem from your ability to research and create your own unique content.

At CollegeFashionista, Amy Levin has very strict rules on copyright and plagiarism. Any Style Guru found to be using a copyrighted image or plagiarising text will immediately have their internship revoked, will receive no letter of recommendation and will be asked to leave the CollegeFashionista team.

Infamous child-blogger Tavi Gevinson had her Style Rookie blog reviewed for potential terms of service violations. In response to the matter, whereby she posted a photo without paying for or attributing sources to it, Tavi tweeted “Need my own domain, dammit! …Who’s the punk who turned me in?!”

In order to avoid her site being shut down for the day, Tavi Gevinson simply needed to hyperlink or source the image that was not hers. Having her own domain would, in effect, change nothing, as she could still be reported for posting copyrighted images. By including a hyperlink, she would have directed her readers to the appropriate source thereby giving credit and avoiding copyright violations.

Accepting clothes for comment

As a fashion blogger, you will no doubt be reviewing collections, products, runway shows and events. In doing so, there is also a good chance that you will be sent free items or products in order to review them.

What is important here is to always remain transparent. Let your readers know if you have a connection with a particular brand or label that may bias your attitude towards it. Should a designer send you the new bag from his/her collection, make sure that is stated in your review.

Danielle Lewis, director of Brisbane Threads, knows that a blogger’s income is usually made up of freebies, which often acts as motivation to keep writing. If you are going to express the opinions of someone else or feature a product because you got it for free, you need to mark the post as advertising or sponsored, to ensure that your readers have all the information.

Rebecca Blood, author of The Weblog Handbook, says to quickly note any personal conflict of interest and then continue your review. Readers will be left to determine whether or not your review is due to your association with the designer, or your true reflection of their product.

Having a standard that you are willing to stick to will avoid sacrificing the quality of your blog. Just because someone sends you something for free, it doesn’t mean you have to praise it extensively to the entire web, especially if you aren’t entirely satisfied with the product.

If you’re not sure, don’t post it

Finally, if you are unsure about whether or not it is legally or ethically okay to post an image or text, then don’t post it. Get the advice of an experienced blogger or journalist, who will be able to identify whether or not you will be breaching ethical or legal requirements.

Resources:

Ethical blogging – a 10 point guide
This ten-point guide, written by Matt De Neef is an excellent starting point for any would-be blogger.

Fashion blog ethics
This is a clip from an Independent Fashion Bloggers Organisation event held in New York, where panels of bloggers discuss whether or not accepting gifts is okay.

Independent Fashion Bloggers
The perfect forum for any new fashion blogger. Covering issues from image copyright and plagiarism to how to review products and designers, it is the perfect go-to if you are unsure about anything blog-related.

Jay Rosen on the ethics of the link
This YouTube clip is a must-watch for all new bloggers. Understanding when and what to link your content to is extremely important when it comes to fashion blogging.

Kirby Hughes is a fashion blogger, and a journalism student at La Trobe University. This is her first piece for upstart. You can read her work on her fashion blog Kirby’s Kloset, and follow her on Twitter: @KiirbyMariie.