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Ethics

Responsible Journalism

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Don’t freak out…. but be aware that we are responsible for what goes on our blogs.  We are not journalists, we are not professional writers, but guess what?  We are top sources for the media and it’s crucial to keep our information clear, true and have our facts straight.

Remember the $25 million law suit against a Miami Real Estate Blogger Last year?  Lucas Lechuga has an amazing blog with unmatched traffic and people rely on his information to make decisions on their real estate investments.  Lucas has a responsibility, as do the rest of us, to check and double check our facts.  I am glad the law suit was resolved – there was an order to dismiss the case (according to Matt Carter’s Inman New’s article ) and a public apology posted on Luca’s blog:

Please accept this statement as a public apology to Mr. Tibor Hollo, Opera Tower and Florida East Coast Realty (FECR).  I acknowledge that a blog post that I wrote on November 25, 2007 contained inaccurate statements and misrepresented facts involving you, your firm and your projects.
The blog post dated November 25, 2007 telling my readers that Mr. Hollo went bankrupt in the 1980s was completely untrue.  As I have come to learn, neither Mr. Hollo, nor any of his companies has ever declared bankruptcy.  Additionally, the prediction I made regarding contract closings at Opera Tower was unfounded, and I’ve been proven wrong….

I assure you that Lucas did not have ill intentions, and this whole experience served as a lesson to so many of us.  Please know that you can quote sources and you could still be liable, there are even law suits against comments left on blogs!  So what can we do?

Take all the measures possible – make sure you have disclosures/disclaimers/declarations/releases on your blog about who’s opinion you represent and don’t represent – I know this may be a bit far fetched – or….just make sure you don’t piss anyone off enough to get sued.

Joe at Sellsius shared this plugin with me a while back and I think it’s a great tool.

Matt Carter from Inman News wrote this after the Lechuga lawsuit:

Defamation and libel suits are a constant threat to newspapers, publishers and bloggers. The law offers many defenses against libel suits, and large awards, especially to public figures, are uncommon. Many states limit damage awards unless alleged victims seek a retraction or correction and are refused.

Matt also makes mention of the Media Bloggers Association – founded by a blogger that was threatened by legal action by the new York Times.

I’m definitely not the type to live in fear of being sued, and I am not afraid to express my opinion – knowing and identifying it always as “MY OPINION” – but always wonder if there can be too much!  Too many disclaimers, too many “in my opinions”, too many careful expressions of opinion.  Where do we draw the line? or is it so thick and distorted that it really doesn’t matter?

Ines is all Miami, all the time. A Miami Beach Realtor® with Majestic properties, Ines authors Miamism.com, PrimeMiamiBeach.com, and MiamismPix.com and is always on communication's leading edge. She goes out of her way to engage and be engaged, often using Mojitos to keep the mood light and give everything she does a Miami flavor. You can find her goofing off or instigating trouble at Twitter, Flickr, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Jim Rake

    March 2, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Ines – thanks for the reminders. It’s always helpful to cite our sources…that’s just good “journalism”!
    Opinions, on the other hand, not only take on their author’s flavor, but let’s hope, have some logical basis. If so, then the reader may not like what is said, but sometimes the truth hurts!
    Afraid to express an opinion? Don’t think that’s something that concerns most of us.

  2. Ines Hegedus-Garcia

    March 2, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Jim – I’ve seen bloggers loose their “voice” over fear to express their opinions. It’s sad because that voice is what made their blog interesting.

  3. Jim Rake

    March 3, 2009 at 8:56 am

    “that voice is what made their blog interesting” – Exactly!

    And, that, in essence, is one of the beauties of life….so many varied ideas to consider…..

  4. Ines Hegedus-Garcia

    March 3, 2009 at 9:24 am

    I do think we can reach a happy medium where you can act responsibly and still keep your “interesting voice” – if not, might as well check your personality at the door with the rest of the jackets and suits.

  5. Elaine Reese

    March 3, 2009 at 9:56 am

    I’ve written a few “commentary” blogs as drafts, only to delete them before hitting the submit button. Too afraid of saying something inappropriate.

  6. Ines Hegedus-Garcia

    March 3, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Elaine, YOU???? something inappropriate? come on? as long as you are not pointing fingers and can be constructive (which you can) and don’t openly call someone a JERK ….. do it! do it! 😀

  7. Miami Beach condos

    March 4, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Thank you for the blog post Ines. Being responsible with blog reporting is not only ethical and professional, it’s practical too. If you sensationalize a story just to get public or media attention, it’s only temporary and the other shoe will fall and crush your reputation.

  8. ines

    March 4, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Miami Beach Condos – I don’t think any of the “established” real estate bloggers are “sensationalizing” at all because none of us see our writing as “journalism” – it’s about giving facts and giving helpful information to our readers and clients – but it’s important to watch out how you put the information out – especially with libes suits

  9. Jim Duncan

    March 7, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Ines –

    I disagree. Some of the stories I and I’d argue we write could (and should) be considered journalism.

    If we don’t consider it journalism, what protection do we have?

    If we don’t consider it journalism, is it advertising?

  10. ines

    March 7, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    Well Jim, let’s think about this – what is “journalism”?

    the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business.

    I guess we would have to define our purpose with our blog – I give my opinion and provide information but don’t consider it “brodcasting of news” but could easily be interpreted that way. My intent is not to provide these “news and opinions” as business, but instead to do it for my business. I know, I know…semantics.

    The question of what we could consider it, whether advertising or journalism for protection’s sake is not an easy one to answer – obviously NEW MEDIA is just that and we fall under a new blanket – as more lawsuits show their ugly faces, the question will be easier to answer.

  11. Jim Duncan

    March 7, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    God help me, I hope I (nor any of us, really) have to become/set the necessary precedents.

    I think that some of us – and it’s just some, so no blanket, do report news – original content, facts, opinion … are market reports “news”? Are interviews with local politicians news? Announcements about new developments/housing trends?

    I’d say so.

    wikipedia says:

    News is any new information or information on current events which is presented by print, broadcast, Internet, or word of mouth to a third party or mass audience. News, the reporting of current information on television and radio, and in newspapers and magazines.

    I’ve spent 1030 minutes trying to find a definition of “news” …

    I’ve found this from the EFF:

    … The definition of news media has been interpreted broadly, and we believe that a blogger who is gathering news for a public blog should qualify. For more information, see the Bloggers’ FAQ on the Freedom of Information Act.

    The CIA says (source):

    Representative of the News Media refers to any person actively gathering news for an entity that is organized and operated to publish or broadcast news to the public. The term “news” means information that is about current events or that would be of current interest to the public.

    So I’d say that some of what we’re doing is reporting “news.” Are we journalists? I think the answer is “sometimes.”

    (shoulda made this a blog post 🙂 )

  12. ines

    March 7, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Should definitely make it a blog post – it’s still semantics and there would be a hell of a lot of interpretation to be made in a court of law – but it’s time. Blogging is no longer “new”

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Ethics

The problem with a self-policing industry: you have to be a narc

Ethics violations in the real estate industry can make or break a Realtor’s career, depending on the severity, so it would stand to reason that all would be mindful of the rules, but there are always individuals in the field that act as if the Code of Ethics is irrelevant.

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An animated discussion on ethics training

“Does anyone else find it ironic that NAR – the trade association for Realtors – has to mandate that members take an ethics class every four years?” An agent who attended one of my company’s broker opens yesterday posed that question to the wine and cheese grazing attendees. Of course, that opened up an animated discussion on the value of etchics training and the lack of enforcement when the rules are violated.

One agent volunteered that the guy sitting next to her in her last ethics class played games on his cell phone and then cheated during the test at the end of the class. Seriously, dude? You cannot even pay attention long enough to pass what should be the easiest test you’ll ever have to take in your career? Perhaps he was just seeing how far he could push it by cheating during an ethics test, to see if anyone else around him caught the extreme irony there. None of the other agents around him – including the agent he cheated off – turned him in and the instructor didn’t notice.

This same agent later called one of my sellers and tried to convince him to break a listing contract with me, because he had a “guaranteed buyer” in the wings. The seller was an attorney, and this bozo tried to get me cut out of the deal, offering the seller a reduced fee to dump me. The seller held firm and directed the agent to call me, then the seller called to let me know about the conversation.

“But you know if you file something the other agent will know.”

It gets better. After the deal closed, I requested paperwork from our local Board of Realtors to file an ethics complaint. The person in charge said, “But you know if you file something the other agent will know.” Gee. Really? I asked her to send the paperwork over anyway.

I called the seller/attorney and asked him to repeat the conversation to me, because I was documenting it to file a complaint. He turned wishy washy on me at that point and his story changed from “The other agent tried to get me to dump you as the listing agent to cut you out” to “Well he really only asked a few questions and I told him to call you. He probably didn’t mean any harm by it.” So there goes my star witness, who doesn’t want to rock the boat.

I didn’t file the complaint. I resorted to the “turn the blind eye but never trust the sleazeball again” path. And that is what happens to almost all ethics issues I hear about / see in person.

That’s what happens when you have a self-policing group of “professionals” who would rather not “narc” on a fellow agent. After all you’re probably going to end up on the other side of a deal from this guy some day, right? The guy in my example has sold two of my houses since that run-in. Why tick him off by filing a complaint and going through all that hassle? If he stops bringing buyers to my properties then my sellers ultimately lose, right?

Boiling down the CoE

The NAR Code of Ethics takes up pages and pages of tiny print, and it runs each year in their trade magazine (I think it’s the January issue). Does anybody read that? Probably not many. I’d argue none of us ever should have to read it again. Simply follow this advice instead. The thousands of words in the Code boil down to one thing: Do unto other agents, and consumers, and clients, what you would have them do unto you. It’s the Golden Rule. Simple. Well, obviously not, for many agents and brokers.

The sad part is the agent in my example had no clue how close I was to filing that compaint, and if he did know he’d probably scratch his head and wonder why his actions were “wrong.” Making us take a one-day class every few years won’t “make” the unethical agents suddenly operate ethically. Most of them just don’t get it.

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Ethics

Ethics hearings in private a disservice to consumers?

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Fight Club and real estate

For those of you that saw the movie ‘Fight Club’ you’ll remember that Rule #1 is “You do not talk about fight club,” followed closely by Rule #2, “You DO NOT talk about fight club.” Which, believe it or not, brings me to today’s topic: The Real Estate Code of Ethics and Arbitration. Article 17 obligates Realtors to resolve fights disputes with another Realtor through arbitration (not litigation). Arbitration is conducted at the local board level, and I am not aware of a local board that doesn’t require arbitration to be confidential.

I respect that public internecine warfare amongst Realtors isn’t in the interest of our industry, and doesn’t belong in the public spotlight. I’m not here to advocate the collective airing of our dirty laundry. That said, I wonder if our collective agreement to keep our concerns confidential can inadvertently harm the consumer and ultimately makes all of us look a little shoddier?

To find the first arbitration guidelines created by NAR and distributed as a set of suggested rules for boards to follow, we have to travel all the way back in time to 1929. NAR’s first Code of Ethics & Arbitration Manual wasn’t created until 1973, and it credited a 1965 California Association of Realtors version as its model.

Appalling conduct

I can think of two instances in the past year where I was so appalled by the conduct of a fellow Realtor that I went to the trouble to inquire about how to lodge a Code of Ethics complaint with my local board. After weighing the time required to make a competent complaint and comparing it with the best case outcome (a closed-to-the-public hearing in which they were found to have violated the code of ethics), I decided not to pursue a complaint in both cases. My association’s bylaws (and probably yours) give it the power to discipline any member based on the results of a Code of Ethics hearing, “provided that the discipline imposed is consistent with the discipline authorized by the Professional Standards Committee of the National Association of REALTORS® as set forth in the Code of Ethics and Arbitration Manual of the National Association.”

“Sanctioning Guidelines” – (Appendix VII of Part 4 of the 2011 manual for the very curious), guides member boards to impose disciplinary consequences that are progressive and fair, taking all considerations into account. Sample first-time disciplinary actions include suggestions of a letter of warning, a fine (amounts range from $200 to $5,000 depending on the severity of the violation), and attendance at relevant education sessions. Not to sound defeatist, but a confidential letter of warning and a fine of around $200 doesn’t seem like an outcome worth investing much of my time in.

Practicing in the internet era

Given that we live and work in the internet era, and review sites like Yelp abound, it seems a bit odd to me that a local board might know of an agent with problem behavior that is documented yet choose to make that information unavailable to consumers. My understanding is that the results of a code of ethics hearing are confidential with disclosure authorized in a few situations, none of which deal with informing the public.

Many of my fellow colleagues feel that the best response to a bad agent is to be patient and give them enough time to work themselves out of business. I can respect and understand their hands-off approach. But what about the damage that individual does to our industry as a whole? While we whisper, warn in confidence and know amongst ourselves how awful they are, the public doesn’t get the benefit of our perspective. Deprived of it, they turn to consumer review sites like Yelp.

How do you think we, as an industry, can help consumers in their quest to find a trustworthy agent?

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Ethics

Realtors, we really need to get over ourselves already

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A letter from the child of a Realtor.

Real estate now vs. 1987

In Real Estate, some things are always changing, like financing, education, laws, rules and technology. The two that will always remain constant, as long as they are within the law, are following our clients’ directions, and working with their best interests in mind.  I’m not sure we always follow through with this, though.

Some of us knowingly take over priced listings.  Some of us take listings that are out of our area of expertise.  Some of us won’t show short sales or REOs.  Some of us won’t show homes with low co-op splits.  Some of us don’t have Supra/e-Keys, and miss out on those listings entirely.

Putting our interests first

When these things occur we are putting our own interests first, not our clients’.  We may think that by having as many listings as possible is a good thing, that’s what we’re taught after all, isn’t it?  It may not matter that some are overpriced, eventually, whether one month or four months down the line, the price will be reduced.  It’s just a matter of time and money, for our clients, after all.  The same can be said when we take listings outside our area of expertise, just to add on to our inventory.  If we don’t know what we’re doing, on a short sale listing, for example, it will only cost our clients a lot of time and money.  A lot.

By eliminating certain houses our clients see, that may already fit their criteria, we’re taking away their choices.  Distressed sales account for close to 40% of the market.  This is probably higher in some local markets.  There is no legitimate way to ignore roughly 1/3 of the homes being sold.  Co-op fees are often a touchy subject, especially when they are, not “enough.”  If everyone utilized a Buyer Broker Agreement that stipulated what their fee was, the issue would take care of itself.  Not being able to access listings with the use of Supra/e-Keys is a choice.   Choosing not purchase one will mean agents will not be able to access Fannie Mae (and eventually, probably additional Gov REO homes) along with the listings that are already using them.

Our priorities versus theirs

We totally need to get over ourselves already.  We are not bigger than our clients.  Our priorities are not more important than theirs when it comes to the actual listing and selling of homes.

Recently, my awesome parents dug through a few boxes and rounded up one of my first art projects. About 25 years ago I did the poster featured above about my Mom, and her Real Estate career.  It was for an Open House (no pun, honest!!!) for the elementary school where I attended first grade.  It was just, what she did according to me way back then.  Things are way more complicated now, than when I was six.  There’s a heck of a lot more paperwork for one.  But the same basic principle still applies.

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