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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, December 2

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« October Gourmet Shout-Out Schooled on Sweet Potatoes: La Encantada Mexican »

Random Wed Oct 10 2007

Full Disclosure: Eating Ethics

An article in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal discussed the ethical issues surrounding restaurants offering free meals to Yelp reviewers, bloggers and other amateur food critics. The article led off with a story about Dine, a hotel restaurant in Greektown, spending about $1,500 to give 100 members of Yelp a multi-course dinner and open bar. As a result, the restaurant's Yelp star rating rose significantly; it's half a star behind the acknowledged best restaurant in the city, Alinea, and is even with Charlie Trotter's and Moto.

The event that garnered all the positive reviews occurred in August of 2006 (not this year as the article seems to imply). The majority of Dine's Yelp reviews are based on the event, and to their credit, most reviewers acknowledged that fact (though not that it was free). Their ratings were entirely four or five stars; the six reviews since average out to 3.5 stars, including a five-star review written by a semi-professional critic who was previously employed by one of the restaurant's managers, based on a media luncheon. Take out that review and the post-event average drops to 3.2.

I attended that media luncheon. We were treated to a four course meal with complimentary drinks, and sent away with a gift bag containing some media materials and the restaurant's signature red velvet cupcakes. I didn't review it (and neither did my tablemates from Centerstage, to my knowledge). The meal was excellent, but it was clearly not an authentic experience that an average diner would have, so even though the food was quite good, it would have been a review of an artificial circumstance. I wouldn't have written the glowing 600-word accolade my colleague-in-blogs did, and I most certainly wouldn't have included a rating.

The WSJ article has been the talk for the food-blogosphere both in Chicago* and elsewhere** as the question of ethics yet again raises its righteous head. Should bloggers be held to the same code of ethics that traditional media should? Is there such a thing as a free meal, and can opinions based on such a meal really be trusted? Do bloggers have a responsibility to their readers to divulge free meals and other events?

The short answer is, yes. If we expect our readers to believe what we say, we should strive to remain objective and unbiased in our reviews. (Our subjective opinions are another matter.) It does nobody good to hide conflicts of interest or preferential treatment from readers: such activity damages the credibility of the writer, the publication, and ultimately the restaurant, too, as it fails to live up to the inflated reputation it manufactured for itself. Think about it: How likely are you to eat at Dine now that you know that its great Yelp rating is based largely on "bought" reviews? And how likely are you to trust Yelp reviews in the future based on this situation?

Here at Gapers Block, and Drive-Thru in particular, it's rare that you'll find a review that was based on a free meal, unless that meal was part of a public event open to anyone -- and in such cases we will note that it was free. Otherwise, all restaurant reviews will be based on meals we paid for ourselves.

* Read more Chicago coverage of this story:
- Chicagoist
- New City
- MenuPages blog
- the TOC Blog
- LTH Forum

** More coverage elsewhere:
- Ed Levine's New York Eats
- Eater
- The Grinder

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Another Andrew / October 11, 2007 1:49 PM

Here Here!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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