20: Writing reviews

REVIEWS of books, products or films can be influential in which product or book readers buy. This is why in writing reviews we accept the responsibility of producing a fair and accurate story.

Reviews have become a popular way of building reputation in online media including as a trusted source of information on YouTube. While the general opinion seems to be that they remain a valid tool, there have been criticisms that they are open to manipulation by people supportive of the author or manufacturer who post positive reviews on their behalf.

Reviews are necessarily subjective. They describe the reviewer’s experience with the product or book. That is contingent on the reviewers knowledge of the topic and product type and their experience of using similar products or engaging in activities where the products are used. In reading reviews there is an unstated expectation that the reader will assume they are the reviewers point of view that might not be shared by other reviewers.

In writing or videoing reviews, we report the thing being reviewed in a way that:

  • avoids suspicion that the review will be biased, disclosing that the product or book has been provided by the manufacturer or publisher if this is the situation
  • in disclosing this some reviewers state that their review will not be influenced, something that can be verified by the fairness and fullness of the review and by comparing it to other reviews of the product (is any important element left out?)
  • provides a full review — what works well, what doesn’t and how it could be improved
  • demonstrates or provides evidence for what we say about the product; field testing is a way of doing this; for example, to test a pack provided by a manufacturer, a reviewer might load it and take a walk with it to test it against manufacturer claims and its recommended use.

When reviewing a book, does it reflect what the back cover says about it?

Is it easy to read?

Is the information credible?

Is it accurate?

What readership is the book aimed at and is the language appropriate for them?

Is it overpriced or a bargain?

What is the quality of the photographs or illustrations?

How does it compare with other books on the topic?

Our reviews can popularise some idea, technology, product or service but it does so best on the basis of demonstrable evidence that the thing is what it claims to be. This is why independent and critical reviews that point out what works well and what could be improved are so valuable.

Research a product on YouTube and we come across authentic video reviews and ‘unboxing’ videos. The latter are useless as a review and of no value to someone considering buying the product. All they show is someone removing a product form its packaging and, commonly, reciting the manufacturer’s claims. There is no testing and no opinion based on the use of the product, so there is no value to viewers deciding whether to buy or to avoid. it. In contrast are the reviews of video bloggers who build a reputation for objective reviews and become trusted sources.

Some people selling things put great value on testimonials. These should be approached with a skeptical mindset. The problem is distinguishing the authentic from the fake, such as a seller or their colleagues writing positive testimonials about the product they sell. If writing testimonials, say what is good and what is not so and disclose your relationship to the manufacturer or distributor.

Bias or favoritism in reviewing will become apparent when the reader/viewer compares what is said with what other reviewers say. Online, we live in a reputation economy and its is our reputation as a citizen journalist that is at stake.