Apr
2

Conflicted

Posted by on Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013 at 06:11:37 PM

Top Cow Productions recently completed its first international Talent Hunt competition, and today CBR News announces its winners with an exclusive look at their art and story pitches.
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Top Cow eventually selected writers Eugene Ward, Hannibal Tabu and Kenneth Porter, and artists -Rom- and Martin Gimenez as the winners of the 2012 Talent Hunt.

Comic Book Resources (CBR) News Team. Top Cow Publishing’s Talent Hunt is a way to find “amateur writers and artists who’ve never been published by one of the big publishing houses and giving them a chance to be published and showcase their work to a larger audience”.

Pretty awesome, right?

As indicated above, the three writers are Eugene Ward, Kenneth Porter and Hannibal Tabu. If you follow the big sites, you’re familiar with the third guy. He’s a journalist and writer who writes a weekly column (“The Buy Pile“) for CBR and does some con coverage on their behalf. In the Buy Pile, Tabu reviews and rates a selection of comics released in a given week. It’s not always my cup of tea, but it’s respectable service journalism for fans overwhelmed by the flood of material available at their local comics shop every week.

So, what’s the problem?

As David Brothers helpfully pointed out on twitter, CBR failed to note that Mr. Tabu is also a writer that reviews comics and occasionally covers conventions for CBR in their announcement of the Talent Hunt winners (which was accompanied by an exclusive interview with Top Cow President/COO Matt Hawkins.

What they did was add a hyperlink to Mr. Tabu’s name that would lead an interested reader to his author page.

Was that enough? Did CBR discharge it’s duty to notify readers of the various conflicts of interest? Did it seriously consider the implications of Mr. Tabu entering and winning this competition?

On first blush, I thought disclosure was sufficient. CBR was clearly not trying to conceal their link with Mr. Tabu (by adding a link to his work), and assumed that interested readers would click through and realize that one of the competition winners was a CBR writer.

But then I wondered: what about the people who didn’t read this press release/interview and only read the Buy Pile or Mr. Tabu’s coverage of Wondercon? Why didn’t CBR follow the example of most other modern news outlets and give a standard disclosure of Mr. Tabu’s potential conflicts of interest within the text of the article? There’s something about a major website giving favorable coverage to a publisher that just hired one of its long time writers who reviews books from that publisher on a regular basis that’s a little unsettling.

I don’t know if Mr. Tabu’s selection would have any impact on which books he selects for review or how he reviews them (or how he covers publishers at conventions), but I think CBR should’ve done more to equip readers with the information to decide for themselves.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Mr. Tabu writing for both Top Cow and CBR. Plenty of comics creators and other professionals in the industry cross (and straddle) the line between creator and critic with some regularity. The perspective of an ‘insider’ is valuable. At the same time, we should be clear about the limits of that viewpoint. Even though I think it’s fair to assume that Mr. Tabu is a professional and will try his best to avoid bias or impropriety, I’m not sure if he would feel free to be critical of a book penned by Marc Silvestri (ceo of Top Cow). Maybe he wouldn’t review it at all, which would create a different kind of problem. Or maybe he’ll be entirely fair. I think the decisions should ultimately be left to the individual reader, which is why transparency is important.

We don’t (and shouldn’t) expect objectivity from our critics, but I think it’s reasonable to expect fairness, transparency and a lack of bias. I hope Mr. Tabu discloses his potential conflict to regular readers of his column and that CBR does better in the future.

This is part of a bigger problem with comics journalism – it’s completely captured by the industry that it covers, so it never really developed some of the basic norms around conflicts of interest and transparency that you’ll find in other sectors of journalism. It’s easy to find out about how to advertise with Newsarama, Comic Book Resources, Comics Alliance, the Comics Beat, Bleeding Cool, the Comics Journal or iFanboy, but it’s awfully hard for the average reader to find their policies on ethics and potential conflicts of interest.

But that’s a story for another day.

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