I like this discussion very much because I believe it holds important insights about a lot of what appears in these forums.
Precisely why I opted to make this an open discussion here. Beyond addressing my own personal concerns, I thought the ensuing discussion would be very relevant to LTH.
It's good to hear that everybody pretty much seems to agree. As mentioned, it's in my nature to be overly cautious about such things, so I figured this would probably be the case, but all the same.
I see your case study, and I raise you Cajun Charlie's. It seems that history has repeated itself.
After a truly disastrous meal that was completely botched by the restaurant, no one wanted to post in deference to nr706, who put himself on the line for Cajun Charlie's. Slowly, details started to come out and there was genuine interest from LTH at large to read about the evening, warts and all. In the end, writing reviews of that evening served to both warn people off of the restaurant as well as to amuse the readers.
The parallels are remarkable, indeed
Though our dinner didn't quite achieve the same level of fiasco. I should probably also mention that, much like the Cajun Charlie's mishap, the chef in this instance knew exactly who he was hosting. If he had thought it was simply some random large group, I don't know that it would have changed my decision to post or not to post, but the fact that he knew he was hosting a large crowd of internet food nerds probably worked its way into the equation in my head to some degree.
Put it this way: There's a school of thought (which I respect) which says it's immoral ever to speak badly of anyone or anything. It goes back to the Torah, and Rabbi Hillel's injunction not to do unto others that which you would not want done unto you. If that philosophy were followed (and hey, I'm not saying it shouldn't be), half the posts on LTH would be wiped out in a second. But within another school of thought, one favoring communication of information as long as it is honest, your post would fall squarely in ethical territory, in my opinion.
Since coming to that realization, I have taken what I post much more seriously. Being careful to try for objectivity is now my watchword, but perfection will probably always elude me.
And this is definitely something that I struggle with at times. I don't like to speak badly of people, especially when they're earnest, passionate individuals whose failures, as I see them, aren't due to a lack of effort or love for what they do. But I do feel compelled to be as objective as I can possibly be. I feel it's absolutely critical to acknowledge that you can be a fan of a place but still call out its faults, and likewise if my dinner is mostly terrible, I feel that I still owe it to the establishment to sing the praises of whatever is done right. Anybody, even the most seasoned traditional media reviewer, can get caught up in "this place rocks" or "this place sucks" passion. I think that's human nature to some degree. But I do think it behooves us to always be aware of that tendency and to resist it. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But what I see emerging is a growing acceptance of something I (and I think everybody here) have always felt -- that opinions expressed in a forum like this or on a blog like mine must be responsibly
So, maybe it's a semantics issue: we are not reviewers, but culinary raconteurs. This leaves us the freedom to tell stories about our experience, but also to assume our readers will take into account the somewhat odd circumstances of this community.
I think this is a great way of putting it. I know there's a movement among some food bloggers to lay down ethical review guidelines similar to traditional print media. I'm not sure I support this movement. Blogs and forums are used by people in different ways than traditional media and I think applying old standards is not only unnecessary but in many ways detrimental. But that doesn't absolve people of the basic responsibility to be honest and fair and as objective as possible within whatever context they're operating. In my case, I feel that making the context clear, as some have pointed out, is definitely one key element. Sometimes I feel like I'm firing off a litany of disclaimers, but I think it's important to let people know when my opinion is based on a small sample, or unusual circumstances, or if I'm not well-versed in that particular cuisine. I try to treat it like a scientific error analysis. Here's what I think, but in the event that they aren't obvious, here are some reasons why I might be wrong.
For those of us who like to draw out the staff and owners of restaurants when dining, at times we are told things that the speaker might not have told us if it was known that the information would be posted on the Internet. In that sense we are all journalists and need to be sensitive to information given in confidence and information that can be shared.
I like to think I am able to figure out what information might cause some problems and withhold it, but I suppose even something as simple as the ingredients in a dish might not be shared if they knew I will post it online. Ethically, the only safe approach is to not share anything unless it is generally public knowledge, but I liken that to cutting off my finger because it could be used to launch a nuclear missile. So I post information about ingredients, who does the cooking on a given night, etc. I do not post dirt about the owners, staff, competition, plans to sell, etc.
Dom, how do you approach that?
This is a really
good point, and yes, it's another one that I struggle with at times. My natural instinct is to be extremely cautious. If somebody is aware that I'm a food blogger, I usually work under the assumption that anything they tell me is fair game, unless my gut tells me that's something they'd rather not be known, in which case I'll ask. But in most cases, no, I don't think they know -- or at least they can't be sure -- and though there are times I'm told things that I'd love to write about, if there's any question in my mind that they wouldn't want it floating about, or if it isn't something that any typical diner couldn't easily glean, I don't write it. It's a judgement call, absolutely. But again, I think it's one of those places where it's okay to exercise judgement so long as you aren't cavalier about it.
David, you bring up a point that causes me occasional apprehension. Most of us are not restaurant reviewers, but between the cameras and food jargon - and sometimes by outright announcement, we make ourselves known. I find it difficult to post after such an experience, because it's hard to say if our experience was "typical." We are often freely offered backstory that our non-virtual dining companions wouldn't hear.
I'm not so sure it's that obvious. When I ate at Da Ping Huo in Hong Kong this past summer, there was a little moment that was shocking to me. It's a tiny place that seats 20-25, and they do two seatings and serve everybody the same courses simultaneously. The first course, I was the only one taking photos of the food. By the second or third course, a couple that was sharing our table (who I think had noted that I was taking pictures) pulled out their cell phone and started snapping their own. This continued to grow until, by the time dessert rolled out, I counted no fewer than five people taking pictures of their food. I can't believe they were all people who regularly post photos about food, or else I presume they'd have been snapping from the first plate and wouldn't be using cell phones. But it said to me that perhaps this practice of taking photos in restaurants has grown far beyond those who intend to post them with writeups online. Point being, it may not be obvious anymore.