Blog Post

Why Bitcoin poses an interesting ethical conundrum for journalists

Bitcoin is having a wild ride right now. Partly due to the euro crisis, and partly due to a lot of press coverage, some people seem to be taking a keen interest in the crypto-currency — in the last week, its value in relation to the U.S. dollar has shot up by almost 60 percent.

As I mentioned the last time I wrote about Bitcoin, I’m not an economist: I’m a technology journalist who is intrigued on a technical level by the theory and mechanics behind a distributed, algorithmically-generated “currency”, and that makes me want to track it and occasionally cover it when the tech angle is strong. Now, I don’t actually own any Bitcoins, but what if I did?

If I were to own stock in a tech company (I don’t, by the way) and I found myself writing about said company, I would at the very least be obliged to put a disclosure into the article — in fact, I would probably just avoid writing about the firm altogether. However, bloggers and journalists don’t follow that convention with currencies. Imagine an American journalist covering the fortunes of the dollar, and putting in a disclaimer to say that all her savings are held in USD – it would seem daft.

So I posed the question on Twitter earlier: “What are the ethics of writing about Bitcoin if you’ve bought some (I haven’t). Does it require stock-style disclosure?” Some quickly responded in the affirmative:

Whereas others were more circumspect:

There’s some serious debate going on about whether or not Bitcoin actually is a currency, but I (like the U.S. Treasury Department, it seems) feel that it is, albeit an unique one. Its uniqueness stems not only from the way in which its creation is automated, but also from its current volatility and, crucially, the fact that people don’t generally understand it very well. We all know what nationally-issued currencies like dollars and yen are, and we don’t need the concept explained to us every time we read an article about them. The situation with Bitcoin is very different.

I strongly suspect Bitcoin’s meteoric rise in recent weeks is largely an echo chamber effect — coverage begets coverage — which puts those writing about it in an unusual position. We bloggers and journalists have an extraordinary amount of influence in people’s perceptions of Bitcoin and, as a result, the trajectory of its value. For that reason alone, I think any coverage from a writer who has bought into Bitcoin should come with a clear disclosure.

That said, my colleague Tom Krazit also brought up an interesting tangential point in discussion, suggesting that writers covering Bitcoin may actually have an obligation to buy into it on a low level, so they can conduct a few transactions and basically have a clearer idea of what they’re talking about in their coverage.

This is all clearly a new and unusual field to explore, so I’d be interested in hearing further thoughts on the subject.

18 Responses to “Why Bitcoin poses an interesting ethical conundrum for journalists”

  1. I just wrote an article for the layperson called
    “We Should Talk About Bitcoin: Examining the New Currency Craze”

    I ran into this same issue and decided it was better to disclose holdings so readers could make their own judgement about my investment relative to my assessment. I think people who talk their book and pretend it’s anything but their book (looking at you most “analysts” on CNBC) are not good people, they’re hucksters.

  2. Nate Grey

    I have actually been down this road before with my local tax office. They told me that if I generate any profits from speculating on the Bitcoin for instance AND I then sold said Bitcoins at a profit then I should declare this as income in the same way I would if I played the stock market successfully.

  3. Jon Matonis

    I disclose that I am on the Board of Directors for the Bitcoin Foundation. Bitcoin is a payments network as well as a unit of account. Disclosing ownership in bitcoin would be like disclosing that you own a VISA card when writing about credit cards.

  4. Chris Owen

    this is a very interesting conundrum, and one I’m not sure anyone knows the right answer to. My view, FWIW, is that given how the role bloggers and journalists play drives awareness, and influences opinion / sentiment toward a product or initiative, disclosure would seem the ‘right’ approach. (The comparison some make re owning houses and writing about housing is not like-for-like and needlessly clouds the debate.)

    As with an emerging technology product, if those writing about it had stock and their influence could significantly affect this, they’d need to disclose ownership. The same could be said of Bitcoin until it becomes mainstream. The reason why, perhaps, this is such a tricky debate is that the scenario has not really cropped up before – bloggers, influencers, and journalists have never really been those driving awareness of a currency, it’s been predominantly national / regional level – the launch of the euro being a case in point.

  5. nik drake

    Journalists should just report the facts not decide ethics of a idea, if you do not understand somthing how can you write about it. If you got bitcoins good for you so have i also have a uk bank account that earns me no interest where i have just earned enough interest in bitcoin to have myfirst holiday for 5 years. What you got dose not matter longs you understand and can write with a un biased view. People seem to treat bitcoin like something shady like a drug deal, moneys been used for that for years and still is dont forget most £20 notes have traces of coke on them let alone buying the stuff. Drugs are big money industry at thats far before Bitcoin. Its a tool thats all as good and bad as people make it. Used properly its empowering can be used now in the real world as well as on line with o outlandish fees. If banks had provided a similier service instead of stealing from the people there wouldnt have been a need for it in the first place.

  6. Paul Snow

    I would wonder why you don’t have any Bitcoins. You seem to know something about them.

    I bought a few using some funds in PayPal (before PayPal cut off MtGox). It was a whim, and I only regret is that I didn’t put some serious money down.

    Eliminating transaction fees from Internet transactions comes as close to insuring the value and importance of Bitcoin as anything does on the Internet; I cannot imagine many scenarios where Bitcoin goes away. The most likely would be the rise of a significantly better Crypto Currency. But the odds that Inflationary Currencies will be preferred to a solid store of value is pretty much nil, best I can tell.

  7. My only real comment is with “We all know what nationally-issued currencies like dollars and yen are, and we don’t need the concept explained to us every time we read an article about them.”

    It strikes me that most people don’t understand or want to understand what their current national currencies actually are. While many do, and many that do fully endorse the mechanisms of their national currency, in a country like the USA where not even 30% of the population over the age of 25 has a college degree – how can we imagine that even half of the population has much if any sense of what the currency in their wallet ACTUALLY is?

  8. Currency disclosure should only be a factor if you are doing currency trading.

    Journalists have always had money and have been free to discuss it without disclosure. Of course, there use to be a better firewall between News and Editorial/Opinion, so disclosure is more important these days.

  9. Jon Xavier

    I think the debate over whether Bitcoin is a real currency is a sideline that has no real bearing on this argument. We disclose stock holdings not because they’re stocks, but because an article might have enough material effect on their price that there is a potential conflict of interest if we have a position in them. One article is unlikely to have a measurable effect on currency prices, so there’s no moral threat there, so there’s no need for disclosure. Bitcoin prices are clearly VERY influenced by press coverage, so Bitcoin holdings should be disclosed. It’s simple.

    • Gabrielo Jolicoeurdo

      Actually this isn’t a speculative bubble. The recent rise in price is most probably due to the Euro crisis and cypriots not being able to move their OWN cash. One of the most valuable aspect of the bitcoin is the anonymity and decentralization.

      What we are seeing right now is the bitcoin reaching its plateau value. What is it, no one really knows, but this isn’t a bubble. I believe the plateau will be higher than 1,000$/btc. With a maximum of 21 million of bitcoins that can be mined (less than 1% of USA population), the stable value is set to be extremely high when it is widely accepted.

  10. If you write about the US Dollar do you disclose that as well? How about writing about the housing market do you disclose if you use a house? I think a measure could be if the story had a reasonable chance of affecting the market then a disclosure should made.

  11. There certainly is some debate on whether Bitcoin is a currency, and indeed what a currency actually is in the age of the Internet, but none of that debate occurred in Mark Gimein’s article so I’ve no idea why you would link it. His whole argument amounted to “Bitcoin isn’t a currency cos you can’t buy stuff with it! Hur hur!”.

    Do I need to point out that it’s factually wrong, or is that obvious? Please don’t link to morons; it diminishes your own, far more thoughtful, piece.

    • David Meyer

      I linked to it as a counter to the prevailing (and correct, I also think) wisdom that Bitcoin *is* a currency, but I thank you for your compliment nonetheless.

  12. I for one would prefer if all journalists writing articles of bitcoin actual did buy a small part of a bitcoin and performed a couple of legit trades, be it buying coffee, computer hardware or just plain out gambling with them.

  13. Ah finally an original angle on Bitcoins. Really interesting point. There’s probably no catch-all answer – but if journalists and bloggers put as much thought into their articles and posts as you do, they’ll probably be okay.

    I’ve seen so much nonsense from both sides of the bitcoin ‘debate’ – you can’t have a realistic discussion at all.


  14. Very interesting, I don’t know from a journalist perspective but from a blogger perspective to follow guidelines all sponsored posts where compensation was received to write about anything gets disclosed, however having holdings in a company stock outside of payment for the article specifically doesn’t fall under those guidelines. If you consider bitcoin a currency I don’t think there is any reason to disclose you own bitcoins anymore to say you have savings in CAN or USD as you mentioned in your article, but currency generally is controlled, you can’t choose not to use USD in the US (well you can online and use currency converters..etc) whereas bitcoin use is 100% optional and you don’t have to use it. I would disclose if you use it because if your article is favorable to the point of recommending and you have bitcoins, you may be swaying to use a service that you use. The same would be true if I were promoting a web hosting company that I use, I tell them why I like it and that I use it.

    Though one doesn’t have to disclose perhaps, I probably would lean toward disclosing.