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You got served…(now write about it)

Is the MEAA Code of Ethics too general for restaurant reviewers? Lisa Rosman talks to Ed Charles, food journalist and blogger extraordinaire about the tricks of the trade and the ethics of reviewing food.

Food is a subject that interests a vast audience. This is especially true in recent years, where food writing has become more accessible to the general public and not just for the ‘foodies’.

Personally, I want to write about it.

Where else, but the field of food reviewing, can a posh, cravat-wearing bloke like Matt Preston become a celebrity?

Food reviewing has gone from a part of culture mostly associated with high society to something that has, according to Michael Symons, “changed the attitude of Australians to what is put on their plates”.

However there are many things to consider before taking the plunge into the depths of food writing.

The Media Alliance Code of Ethics contains guidelines suitable for good journalism. It contains twelve clauses that journalists should be able to recite in their sleep.

However, does the code cover the ethical issues in all fields of writing or do food journalists need more specific guidelines to, as the MEAA states, “strive for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts”?

To figure out if the MEAA code is too general for restaurant reviewing I talked to Ed Charles, freelance food and business journalist and blogger extraordinaire, about the tricks of the trade and the ethics of reviewing.

Ed Charles describes himself as “more of a punk rock food warrior than a foodie” and tries hard not to fall in to the trap of the ‘food snob’ style of writing.

“The normal person going out to eat, that kind of person is someone who is coming from the outer suburbs, they saved up, they’re out for a big meal,” he tells me.

“It’s going to be really special, they probably don’t go out that much and they’re probably not that sophisticated.”

Charles has been a journalist ever since he graduated from university in England in 1984. He finished a technical degree but went on to an in-house journalism course at London-based publishing house IPC Media to pursue a career as a writer.

Since moving to Australia he has been published in newspapers such as the Herald Sun and The Australian, as well as printed and online magazines.

He says that “the ethical guidelines are the same for all journalists.”

When he writes about personal finance and business news he is supposed to be objective and the same goes for food journalism.

“I think sometimes, especially in America, they get tied up with their codes of ethics for food writers,” he says.

“Most of the lists of what you should and shouldn’t do are totally irrelevant.”

One of the ‘lists’ he is referring to is the code of ethics compiled by the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ).

Instead of the general guidelines provided in Australia by the MEAA, the AFJ provides specific suggestions on how a food journalist should ‘act’.

Apart from their statement that “[restaurant] reviewers should subscribe to the same accepted standards of professional responsibility as other journalists” they set out preferred procedure for multiple visits, anonymity, ordering, payment, and new restaurants amongst other things.

According to the AFJ, a restaurant critic should visit the venue they are reviewing at least two but preferably three times.

However Charles says, “no restaurant critic who is writing for a daily newspaper visits more than once because the budget doesn’t allow it.”

He continues to say that a customer who goes to a restaurant with bad food or service “won’t give it a second chance, so why should the critic?”

How about the importance of anonymity?

The AFJ writes that reviews “should be conducted anonymously whenever possible” because “critics should experience the restaurant just as an ordinary patron does”.

Charles agrees that anonymity is desirable. However, in a relatively small country like Australia, reviewers are guaranteed to be recognized, “at least by the high end restaurants.”

“When I started out nobody knew me, now everybody knows me. If you get recognition and people are nicer to you, of course it will affect you, it’s inevitable. It’s not an ideal situation,” he says.

Sometimes, journalists probably wish they could be completely anonymous.

The Sydney restaurant Coco Roco sued Matthew Evans and the Sydney Morning Herald‘s publisher Fairfax for defamation after Evans’ negative review ‘When dining on the view is the only recommendation’ was published in 2003.

The Coco Roco case has taken many turns; at first the newspaper was acquitted of its defamation charges but, after an appeal, the High Court ruled that the business had been attacked in the review.

There is still no final ruling in the case that was defended on the notion of truth and fair comment.

The High Courts ruling scared the critic community. Reviewer John Lethlean told The Age that he thought it was “a real worry…I think it’s going to send the scares out on all Fairfax press whether they comment about restaurants or cinema or theatre, literature, whatever.”

Ed Charles says that today’s critics as well as publishers are careful with what they print.

“If you are writing a negative review, like with anything in a newspaper that is contentious, it will go through the lawyers.”

He has never been accused of defamation; the only negative response he has received from a venue was after he published the review ‘Urinal restaurant, shit bar’ of Melbourne restaurant Red Spice Road on his blog.

“I got uninvited from their launch party,” he says, with a tone that suggests that the consequence did not bother him all too much.

Ed Charles’ blog Tomato – Melbourne + Food +Drink attracts about 30 000 views monthly. He recommends up-and-coming food journalists should do just that – start a blog.

“The [food] sections are getting smaller,” he says, explaining why many restaurants now are turning to bloggers for publicity.

“There’s not that many opportunities for a restaurant to be reviewed. They’ve got the Good Food Guide, the newspapers and some magazines.”

They are getting smaller indeed, and the magazines fewer. Even the most prestigious publications are struggling.

In October of this year New York based publishing group Condé Nast announced the cancelation of the acclaimed Gourmet Magazine, the ‘foodie’ bible since 1940.

That is why Charles’ other advice to aspiring food journalists is to diversify, “you are going to have a lot of trouble 
making a good living from just food writing because here [Australia] the market is 
small and the media is laying off food and wine writers.”

If blogging is the way of the future, are the ethical guidelines of blogging the same as for traditional journalism?

“I follow the same principles when reviewing for my blog as I do for professional reviews,” Charles says.

“I was trained properly by proper journalists.”

However the reality of blogs is that they are written by amateurs, not trained journalists who have the code of ethics engraved in their memory.

If they are not journalists should they turn to the MEAA or somewhere else?

In an attempt to regulate the credibility of blogging, The Cyber Journalist website published ‘A Blogger’s Code of Ethics’ in 2003.

They claim that certain guidelines are necessary in the ‘blogosphere’ and that “responsible bloggers should recognize that they are publishing words publicly, and therefore have certain ethical obligations to their readers, the people they write about, and society in general.”

The nineteen guidelines provided by The Cyber Journalist lie below the sub-headlines; ‘Be Honest and Fair’, ‘Minimize Harm’ and ‘Be Accountable’.

They say, amongst other things, that “bloggers should be honest and fair in gathering, reporting and interpreting information” and that “ethical bloggers treat sources and subjects as human beings deserving of respect.”

Furthermore, to bring validity to blogging, more specifically food blogging, the American food writers Brooke Burton and Leah Greenstein wrote the ‘Food Blog Code of Ethics’.

They believe that food bloggers are unfairly labeled as “untrained and power hungry individuals empowered by anonymity” and wrote the code to “draw attention to the food bloggers that hold themselves to higher standards.”

Burton and Greenstein’s code suggests that food bloggers should follow the same rules as traditional food journalist to maintain a respectable and fair blog.

Their guidelines were brought to attention by the New York Times blog on dining out – the Diner’s Journal – where the writer Kim Severson suggested that “the code might seem a tall mountain for some bloggers to climb.”

As a response to the article the blogger and former journalist Tamara Kaye Sellman wrote that she “love(s) the idea that bloggers are interested in taking on a code of ethics…It’ll sort itself out, and the best will rise to the top, the worst will fade. We need to be patient. It’s still a new format, an evolving medium.”

However not all comments were that positive, the signature JdG wrote that “to require guidelines [for blogs] would be to hobble a medium that revels in its freedom.”

While the debate continues over the ethical standards of the food blog community, it cannot be ignored that bloggers are influential and changing the way reviews are conducted.

Ed Charles tells me that he has “noticed how reviewers have been going in to restaurants much earlier now…sometimes they go in within the first week or month.”

“I think that might be the influence of blogs.”

The AFJ suggests that critics should wait at least a month before visiting a new restaurant, to give the venue time to get organized. Charles does not agree with that clause.

“When you open your door for business you should be ready, it should be working.”

Whether you abide by the Ed Charles or Association of Food Journalists style of reviewing, the most important things to consider when reviewing is provided in the MEAA guidelines’ first clause.

“Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.”

Charles agrees and says writers should “make sure to be independent and give fair comment.”

“I’ve been doing it for over 20 years so I don’t have to refer to those kind of things [codes of ethics].”

Even if you do not turn to the MEAA code on a regular basis, it is useful. For those of us who are not as far along in our careers as Ed Charles, or have yet to even start, it can be a good shoulder to lean on.

Food journalism is a profession where the notion of defamation and inaccuracy can be haunting and limiting. It is where you will have to say things people do not want said and where your popularity can fluctuate as much as the stock market.

However, if you do it well and respect the boundaries of traditional journalism, you will be rewarded.

As esteemed wine critic Robert Parker once said: “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.”

Lisa Rosman is a journalism student at La Trobe University. You can keep up to date with her hunt for the perfect breakfast at her blog Breakfast Aficionado.

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