Previous Next

Kachin recruits in training / Photo Ryan Libre

Travel writing can be a powerful political act, as explored by LP writer Robert Reid and affirmed by our own Tim Patterson.

IN 2006, THE great travel writer Robert Kaplan gave a seminal speech at the Columbia School of Journalism.

Kaplan argued that mainstream journalism suffers from an obsession with soundbites, and that journalists should take time to steep themselves in the sort of local knowledge that only first-hand experience can provide.

Here’s my favorite part of the speech:

“Journalism desperately needs a return to terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned travel writing. Travel writing is more important than ever as a means to reveal the vivid reality of places that get lost in the elevator music of 24-hour media reports.”

Today, with the venerable old house of traditional journalism ablaze, Kaplan’s message is more relevant than ever.

Enter The New Reporters

Travelers have a profound responsibility to report on what they experience abroad. Travel writing, a discipline that can be flaky, shallow and commercial, can also be a powerful form of journalism and a force for social change.

In this brave new world, we are all foreign correspondents. We are all investigative journalists. We are all photographers and videographers with the ability to snap an iconic image that can change the world.

We are all citizen journalists, able to shine a bright light into dark corners. With a keen eye, a digital camera and a blog, we can grab the attention of people around the world and make them care.

Reporting From Inside Burma

A few months ago I crossed into northern Burma in the company of ethnic Kachin rebels and spent one month reporting on the Kachin freedom struggle and teaching underground journalism workshops to college students.

A soldier laughs / Photo Ryan Libre

Few countries are as repressive as Burma, and to go to Kachin State under the auspices of the Pulitzer Center was a unique opportunity to shine a light on a place that does not receive much media attention.

Any traveler to Burma can, to some degree, help shine this light. Any traveler can post blogs, take photos and expose the fateful links between the totalitarian Burmese regime and immoral companies like Chevron.

However, going to Burma and acting as a citizen journalist bears an enormous responsibility. You are unlikely to be thrown in jail or tortured, but Burmese innocents who talk with you could bear serious consequences.

Travel as a Political Act

The prolific travel writer Robert Reid addresses this issue yesterday in a must-read essay at Worldhum.

Reid is the author of the Lonely Planet Burma guidebook. In the essay he discusses his own personal struggle with the question of whether travelers should even go to Burma. For Reid, the decision to go to Burma, and promote travel there, comes down to the ability of travelers to be effective citizen journalists, because ultimately:

Travel writers are in a position to fill information gaps and ask overlooked questions.

Right on, Mr. Reid. It’s up to all of us to fulfill that responsibility.

Community Connection

Read 5 Compelling Reasons To Visit Banned Countries, and Tim’s moving report: Kachin Christmas: Finding Faith In Myanmar

Activism + Politics Writing


About The Author

Tim Patterson

Tim Patterson is a long-time contributor and former contributing editor at Matador Network.

  • Turner Wright

    I liked this one a lot, Tim. Now to report on fewer “feel good” countries and get into the meat of travel writing (with apologies to vegans).

  • Ryukyu Mike

    Hafta be careful sometimes, though. Like I plan on living here, so don’t want to upset the politicians. So, I just whisper to tourists on the beach, “Don’t swim here; it’s where everybody’s shit and laundry water comes down to the ocean. Swim over there where it’s clean”!
    No problem doucmenting the situatiion in a country I’ll be leaving, though. Great article !

  • Carlo Alcos

    I’m half way through reading Flat Earth News, written by Nick Davies, an award winning journalist from the UK. He gives an inside scoop at the media world today. it’s shocking. If you’re studying to be a journalist right now, maybe not a good book to read because it doesn’t paint a very good picture (although, maybe at the end of the book he talks about how to improve it…will have to let you know later).

    From what I’ve gathered so far though, the number of journalists employed by big media has gone WAY down…due to maximizing profits (it’s all corporate now). So the few journalists left are just churning what’s already on the news wire and PR releases, cuz that’s all they have time for. Fact checking is minimal, and they only give the readers “what they want” – if an editor doesn’t think a piece of news will fly with the readers he/she won’t bother with it and might instead go with the fight between Tom and Katie, even if it’s important.

    “Journalism desperately needs a return to terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned travel writing” – exactly. But unless the media puts aside maximum profits and starts becoming interested in the truth again, how likely is this?

    This is all the more reason why it’s important for everyday people to spread the word about the truth of what’s going on. Great piece Tim, on my way to read your “must-read” essay. (don’t let Teresa catch you using that phrase)

  • joshywashington

    wow. Great post Tim, this has got me so stoked! I have often felt while blogging while traveling that i was doing something worthwhile, something of value, as a sort of dispatch from the front lines of life…i know you know what i’m talking about.

  • Ryan

    Great piece and a reminder of the power that travelers as citizen journalists have! Now we just have to get more eye balls on alt- and online media instead of TV and mainstream outlets.

  • Luisa S

    Inspiring article, Tim. Just as on WTBD, you have a knack for impressing upon us the responsibility we all have to give back in some greater way. Very interesting piece, and I liked how you slipped in a reference to Chevron!


  • Christine Garvin

    Tim, such important words. What impresses me more each and every day is that there is an “undercurrent,” if you will, of truth, the little guy (and girl), the person who believes that what your reap is what you sow making its way to the surface.

    We, as citizen journalists, are telling our truths about everything from what affects our own daily health to what is killing people that we have no “connection” to. Because the reality is we are all connected, and what happens to one happens to the whole.


    I really liked this article. I happen to be a travel writer who chooses to look at travel through a different lens — political, cultural, socio-economics, spiritual, etc..I like to put my “investigative journalist” hat on when I travel. But that’s just me. I would probably travel to Burma if I wanted to get the story..I would just make sure I had a good “cover” before I went.

    On the other hand, some travel writers enjoy writing about nightlife, destination spots, hotels, etc…and that’s fine. All of us have different takes on travel writing. That’s just how it is.

  • Audrey

    Unfortunately, when most people think travel writing they think of the “Top Spas in the World” or “How to Get the Cheapest Flights” articles. There’s certainly a place for those articles, but there is a more educational and journalistic role that travel writing can play. And, I firmly believe that nothing replaces first-hand experience when accurately describing a country and culture.

    Thanks for sharing this.

Check out the winners and runners up in this year's Narrative Travel Writing Contest from...
Ways to tap into your inner creativity and what to do when you hit that creative...
The good bloggers over at Frommers would like to remind all of us aspiring travel writer...
The advice is aimed at fiction writers, but it's equally applicable to narrative...
Travel writers don't often consider asking for consent. They should.
Rick explains why a travel writer would have something to say about politics.
There are many conferences for every industry, including travel. Here are seven of the...
Can a writer blog, tweet, digg, vlog, tumbl - and still get down to the actual business...
When the yurt does not have wifi
Pull out your pen and get writing for a chance to win a trip for two to Colombia and see...
Notes, quotes, tweets, links and other distractions from the confab at Stanford...
We had a great time interacting with our friends and followers on Twitter.