"Why yes, I'll have another glass of free wine."

Over the past year, I’ve eaten thousands of dollars’ worth of free food thanks to the increasingly PR-influenced world of food blogging. I promptly forgot about some of it. I wrote about some of it. I raved about some of it. But most of all, I agonized over it. Is this OK? Am I selling out? Can my readers trust me if I’m writing about freebies?

As founder of Boston Food Bloggers and writer of my own food blog, I’ve watched curiously as the blogging landscape has changed. I started blogging in order to share my dining experiences and my kitchen misadventures. I had no idea that bloggers got free food. Maybe it hadn’t really started yet, or maybe I just hadn’t ended up on the lists yet, but I wrote solely for the sake of writing. Then, the invitations began to arrive.

Now, many bloggers juggle frequent events, everything from small tastings to huge feasts, usually with PR representatives on hand to sing the restaurant’s praises and make sure we’re being adequately wined and dined. I often think about “I Was a Junket Whore,” a 2006 article by freelance film critic Eric D. Snider, illuminating the world of press junkets, in which writers would attend film screenings and have a chance to interview the stars while staying in fancy hotels, receiving plenty of swag, etc. The writers tend not to be ones from “reputable news outlets,” notes Eric, because those outlets generally have rules against writers accepting freebies. Are the bloggers (myself included) who frequent food blogger events merely foodie junket whores? As long as we make it clear to our readers what’s going on behind the scenes, does it even matter?

I’ve struggled with this for a while. On one hand, we pour hours of work into writing content, editing photos, promoting posts, and everything else that goes into running our own independent publications. We’re not backed by a publication that’s paying us or reimbursing us for meals. We might make a few dollars – literally a few dollars – in advertising if we’re lucky. It’s nice to get some kind of compensation for the time and effort expended, and it’s particularly nice to get the opportunity to dine at places that we might not otherwise be able to afford.

On the other hand, writing blog posts about food received for free can obviously appear as shilling or selling out. Can content be trusted when the “I got this free” bias is in place?

Maybe.

One important rule has stuck with me from journalism school, and I think it applies well to food blogging: you can do whatever you want as long as you tell the reader what you are doing. I’ve used this to create guidelines for myself. I try to use blogger events as research opportunities rather than direct fodder for blog posts. For example, if I like a place during an event, I’ll return on my own dime before writing about it. But when I do write specifically about an event or product, or if I’m treated to something free because they know I’m a writer, I make absolutely certain to disclose this in multiple places within the blog post. Disclosure is actually required by the FTC as of 2009, but it is even more important from an ethical standpoint. I doubt the FTC is actively monitoring blogs. The most important thing is not to mislead readers.

In the end, all that matters is your reputation. By remaining unwaveringly open and honest with your readers, you gain their trust. You can choose what direction to go with your blog, and your readers will happily come along for the ride, as long as they know what’s happening.

Here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as “unbiased.” We all carry bias into every opinion we express, whether it’s because we got a free dessert or the waiter was cute or we were angry that this restaurant took over the space of one of our favorites (I’m looking at you, Aguacate Verde.) The key is that your biases should be part of your story. It’s what makes your story unique, and it reinforces your honesty.

Freebies aren’t the problem. Dishonest blogging is. So go forth, bloggers, and keep eating and writing and enjoying the occasional perks, but tell your readers what you’re doing. They deserve the chance to make a well-informed decision about how to spend their blog-reading time, and most are sure to appreciate an honest rave about a free dinner rather than a sneaky shill.