Apr
2

Conflicted

Posted by Jamaal Thomas 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.
……..

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.

Posted in Blurbs · Read more by Jamaal Thomas

5 Responses

  1. Hey,

    Thanks for reading the work.

    I can’t speak for CBR. Despite working there seven years, first as the movie/TV reporter, then bringing The Buy Pile from UGO.com, then doing convention coverage.

    However, I can speak for myself. Aside from an issue of Think Tank, and one Darkness that I think was before the contest was announced, there hasn’t been a Top Cow book that made the Buy Pile in a while. I have no desire to change my reviewing methods, since I should be able to remain a jackass if they were willing to accept me as a winner when I had clearly been one for so many years.

    I’ve been writing — novels, songs, poetry, journalism, et cetera — for money since 1993 and for myself since 1981. Comics, now, are another thing I’m writing. I’m super transparent and literally everything I do is a Google search away. I have nothing to hide, and am happy to answer anybody’s questions. Why still review comics? The checks still clear. Every week lots of people see my name. Nothing has changed nor will it.

    However, your skepticism is well placed and wholly fair. You could, however, have just asked me.

  2. Hannibal,

    Thanks for commenting. I hope that you didnt misunderstand the intent of the post. I was primarily concerned about CBR’s lack of transparency in the article announcing the contest winners, not your ethics. I thought it was strange that they were less than clear about your relationship with CBR (particularly given the nature of your column).

    Although I’m sure that you are transparent about the work you do, I was (and am) concerned that the average reader of the Buy Pile wouldn’t know that you were doing work for Top Cow while writing a weekly column reviewing new comics. That reader wouldn’t think to google you and may not have read any announcements/stories about the contest. That’s why I wrote that I hoped that you would mention it in your column. I don’t think you should change your reviewing habits at all.

    Hope that clears things up.

    Thanks again,

    J

  3. Hey,

    Well, in the Buy Pile reviews I made a big, big deal about winning the Top Cow Talent Hunt — I think I ran links about it for about two weeks around Wondercon when it was announced. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that I wanted to be quiet about, and frankly, I’ll probably add it to the disclaimer at the top now I think about it. If that helps.

    Likewise, when I do have a clear conflict of interest — as I did with Dusu: Path of the Ancient #1 from StrangerComics.com, a book that I’m writing a prose sequel to — I … well, I do this …

    http://goodmenproject.com/komplicated/review-brutal-fantasy-fiction-from-strangercomics-released-for-free/

    … remembering how important it was to tag somebody in back when I watched Mid-South Wrestling growing up.

    When my Top Cow comic comes out in December or January, I will have a guest reviewer for that as well. That’s only fair, even if they hate it.

    As for CBR … well, let’s just say I’m not as much a member of the inner circle as I once was. You may have missed it, but for the first day that announcement article was posted, they said that Hannibal King won the contest, despite the fact that 1) I’ve worked there seven years, 2) my actual name is in the image file showing a synopsis of my winning pitch and 3) my name was noted correctly in everything Top Cow sent over, including a personal conversation between Top Cow’s EIC and the EIC of CBR, who I’ve known, as noted, for seven years.

    Did they mean Ryan Reynold’s Blade 3 character or the hip hop producer? I don’t know. The people who put the article together don’t know me very well, if at all. I didn’t take that personally because it wouldn’t alter the name on the ultimate check and, whoa, I’d broken into comics on sheer merit.

    Have you ever read Douglas Adams, writing about the Vogons? “It’s not that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, it’s that the right hand had a pretty foggy notion as well.” CBR’s kind of like that. They have a whole staff of reviewers who work wholly independent of me, that I know nothing about. Search for “reviews” and my work won’t come up. Wholly silo’ed content towers, isolated and disconnected.

    Hope that clears things up.

    Auf wiedersen.

    -H

  4. Thanks for the note, Jamaal. My memory of how this specifically went down is a bit fuzzy, but I believe our intent was to disclose in clearer terms that Hannibal was a columnist, though I’m not sure who wrote the final copy here. I’ll take a minute to correct today.

    Considering the fact that we apparently got Hannibal’s name wrong (and geez man, SORRY…don’t know how that happened), I’m assuming this was prepped by someone newer who’s had little interaction with him as a function of the site. I’ve been here five years and I only interact with Hannibal maybe once every four months or so. If that.

    Regardless, the note is well taken, and I’ll talk to the core crew on the site about doing better on this should something else in this range come up.

  5. Kiel,

    Thanks for the response, that clears a lot up. I imagine that it’s challenging to manage these issues when covering the comics industry (given the blurry line between fan, writer, creator and retailer). That said, it would be great if more sites posted their policies on ethics and conflicts.

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