Chronicle Herald restaurant reviewer request raises controversy

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By David Swick

Journalism controversies rarely involve a newspaper restaurant reviewer. But then not many restaurant reviewers call up restaurants and request $200.

Shortly after Victor Fineberg opened the Hali Deli in central Halifax, a favourable review appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald. Fineberg posted it to the restaurant website. He then received a call from the reviewer, Bill Spurr, who explained that because the review is his intellectual property posting it would require a one-time payment of $200.

Fineberg balked. He asked if this was a Bill Spurr policy or a Chronicle Herald policy. Spurr explained that while he is a full-time Herald staffer the column is freelance, so he owns the rights.

Technically, of course, Spurr is right. Copyright should not be violated, and restaurants should not publish reviews without permission. (Posting links is legal.)

Fineberg went to the media. The website allnovascotia.com broke the story. CBC Radio quoted Fineberg as saying he felt like it was “extortion.” Spurr talked to the media too, expressing surprise. This was a longstanding practice, he said, and an issue of copyright, plain and simple.

Well, no. There is more at stake if readers perceive a journalist has a conflict of interest.

Spurr declined my requests for an interview. Herald associate publisher Ian Thompson, however, did offer to talk. Thompson began by saying that Spurr has now dropped the policy of asking for $200. “I think he changed it because it’s not a big deal for him financially, and he obviously wasn’t comfortable with the mini-controversy,” Thompson said. “And obviously we had some discussions internally as well. So I’m happy he came to that conclusion.”

Thompson believes the whole issue has been blown out of proportion. “There has to be a sense of proportionality… He was suggesting that people might like the hamburger somewhere. So I see the ethical principle, but what is the worst possible consequence?”

It’s a popular column, Thompson said. And most importantly, “we believe in Bill Spurr as someone with integrity.”

My concern is that Herald readers could question if Spurr was writing honestly for them – or for a chance to pick up another $200. Journalists must not only be clean, they must appear to be clean. We need to avoid even the perception of conflict of interest, and act based on greater issues, not technical loopholes.

There has been one small change in the paper. The column now appears followed by this: “Bill Spurr is a feature writer at The Chronicle Herald and a freelance restaurant reviewer.”

Rather than offer readers clarity, I suggested, this might cause more confusion.

“I recognize that Joe Reader won’t pick up the nuance there,” Thompson said, “but it’s another way of establishing that this copy is owned by Bill Spurr.”

That the Herald reviewer has stopped asking restaurants for money for posting reviews is a positive step. The new tag line, unfortunately, does not serve the reader.

 

Assistant professor David Swick teaches journalism ethics at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

Comments

A fascinating story.  As much as I support freelancers' intellectual property rights, I think Bill Spurr was totally out of line here.  But I also find it a bit odd that the Chronicle Herald needs to put one of its own staffers on freelance status to write restaurant reviews.  When I was at The Citizen way back when, I would have loved reviewing restaurants as part of my regular assignment, if only to get away from the hurly-burly of city hall reporting, not to mention all the free (ie employer-subsidized) eats! 

I don't see a conflict of interest here. Spurr writes a freelance restaurant review column for the Chronicle Herald, and is entitled to be paid for his work. If a favourably reviewed restaurant wants to run the review on its website to promote its menu, he's also entitled to be paid. How is this any different from, say, a freelance book reviewer writing a review for the Chronicle Herald, and then turning around and selling the same review to another publication? This is how freelancers make their money? The fact that Spurr also happens to be an employee the Chronicle Herald is irrelevant. 

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