A website that covers Tesla-related news may have violated Tesla's terms of service by getting readers to use referral codes to get a $1,000 discount on a new vehicle.
Last week, Fred Lambert, editor-in-chief of electric vehicle blog Electrek, tweeted his personal Tesla referral code, giving Tesla customers a $1,000 discount on a new vehicle and free access to the Supercharger network. The tweet sparked criticism from automotive journalists who accused Lambert of crossing the line of unbiased coverage.
In addition to raising questions of journalistic ethics, Lambert's tweet falls into blurry territory under Tesla's terms of service. On its referral site, the automaker states "commercializing, advertising, publishing, mass distributing or selling referral codes is not appropriate, and we will not honor such codes." However, the same page says it allows codes to be used on "informational and fan websites" and "social media sharing."
The Tesla site shows he has referred eight customers to the electric carmaker. Another writer on his site, Jameson Dow, has referred 20 buyers to Tesla's program.
Lambert said the program benefits Tesla owners, which he is, and is not merely a way for the company to subsidize his coverage. Owners whose referral codes are used by new customers stand to receive free Tesla products, including premium wheels and a Powerwall 2 home battery.
"People who are trying to make this a 'thing' are either naive, malicious, or misleading," he said in an email to Automotive News. "Most auto and tech publications are using referral links whether directly or indirectly."
He also said the site does not hide its referrals, and publishes stories telling readers which items Tesla is giving away in exchange for referrals.
In May, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the automaker would soon end the referral program. The automaker also has come under fire from the California New Car Dealers Association, which claims the program violates state law.
Electrek bills itself as a "news site tracking the transition from fossil fuel transportation to electric and the surrounding clean ecosystems." Since Tesla is the only all-electric automaker, it's natural the company would be a primary subject of the blog's content. But some of Electrek's practices may go beyond typical journalism standards and call into question the trustworthiness of its reporting.
Some of the site's writers hold Tesla stock -- which is disclosed in relevant articles. A journalist holding shares in a company he or she covers is discouraged by the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics.
The SPJ code also states journalists should "distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the line between the two."
"For traditional media, that's something that should not be tolerated at all," said Mike Ramsey, a technology analyst at Gartner Research. But Ramsey said Electrek may operate outside the definition of a traditional media outlet because it openly promotes clean energy.
Despite Electrek's nontraditional practices, Ramsey said most people who read the site understand its pro-electric stance and take its content with those biases in mind.
"Electrek, it is what it is," he said. "People who read it know what they're buying."
— Fred Lambert (@FredericLambert) October 4, 2017
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