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Friday, January 29, 2010

The Ethics of Food Journalism in a World of Tweets

Posted By on Fri, Jan 29, 2010 at 2:41 PM

What are the rules of food journalism in the era of Twitter? That question came to mind last week when we noticed this tweet scrolling slowly down our feed:

7x7bitsbites Tacolicious open until midnight. Yes, there is late night in the Marina beyond the Brazen Head.

Bits + Bites is the food blog of 7x7 magazine. And unless you've done a bit of poking around the site, you might not know that 7x7 senior eat and drink editor Sara Deseran (who wrote the tweet) has more than a passing interest in whether or not readers show up at Tacolicious. She just happens to be its owner.

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Make that co-owner. Deseran married Tacolicious founder Joe Hargrave last fall. Since then, we've noticed mentions of Tacolicious (and its predecessor, Hargrave's Laïola, which shuttered New Year's Eve to make way for Tacolicous) in 7x7. But at Bits + Bites, they've almost always been framed with disclaimers, whether written by Deseran herself or by 7x7 associate food editor Jessica Battilana. Which is as it should be. But on Twitter, with its 140-character max, disclaimers to the kind of post that caught our attention can prove unwieldy.

Then there was the tweet of Jan. 25, hooking up Twitter followers with a Bits + Bites post listicle about late-night dining spots:

7x7bitsbites Think there's no late-night dining here? Think again. 32 great spots open until midnight and after.

It's a fine list, penned by Deseran, listing three dozen places, including Tacolicious. And unless we missed it, there's no disclaimer about the author's stake in recommending it as a place readers might want to check out.

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We asked Deseran about the list. She said she believes all the places listed are businesses she'd want to tell readers about, even if she weren't co-owner of one of them. "The question you have to ask is, Would we cover it regardless," Deseran said. "Is it a restaurant deserving of attention?" And anyway, she told us she thinks readers are well aware of her relationship to Tacolicious from past disclaimers on Bits + Bites. "I feel like we've made it very clear," Deseran said, adding that the city's food and restaurant community is so small, relationships with chefs and restaurant owners are inevitable for a food writer. "It's a very insular world," said Deseran, who's written about food in San Francisco for more than a decade. "I met Joe in the first place because I interviewed him for an article." But does the relationship cast doubt on Deseran's opinions about the place? It's a fair question.

Of course, those are charges critics have lobbed at Chronicle reviewer Michael Bauer for years: That chefs and restaurant owners know him socially, and thus recognize him when he appears for review visits. Bauer is anything but anonymous, critics say, and so his restaurant experiences are skewed. And Twitter only complicates things. Ironically, it was Deseran who cried foul when Michael Murphy, Bauer's partner and longtime dining companion, live-tweeted an opinion about Oakland's Commis during (or shortly after) one of Bauer's review visits. And one of the city's other major food critics ― the Examiner's Patricia Unterman, author of the San Francisco Food Lover's Guide ― has been co-owner of Hayes Street Grill for decades.

And for the record, we should note that we don't have any personal grudge here. We've never met Deseran or Hargrave (though we've spoken professionally with both by phone). And frankly, we don't have an opinion about Tacolicious. In a way, SFoodie does compete with Bits + Bites for stories (though our blog coverage is very different), but we certainly don't compete for advertisers. We admire the work that Deseran and Battilana do. But, as a food writer and occasional reviewer, we do have a stake in preserving the ethics of the profession, in this town and beyond. Thoughts?

Follow us on Twitter: @SFoodie

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