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Travel Writing Basics: Proper Attribution and Ethics

by David Miller Aug 15, 2013

One of the most overlooked elements of travel writing is its ethics. Each day, hundreds of thousands of people write blogs about their travels, and take pictures of the places and people they encounter, many never considering the impact their descriptions and photos may have on the actual subjects. The entire genre of travel writing as a whole has some dark spots in its history that continue to some degree today — essentially stereotyping or objectifying local peoples and cultures, reducing them to a simple “backdrop” for the narrator’s exploits.

To a large degree, travel advertising still does this on a regular basis. How many ads have you seen for trips to Hawaii or Costa Rica or some other place where the image they’re selling you is of a smiling, “exotic”-looking “native”? Presenting human beings like this — as objects for selling something — is so commonplace that it’s often completely overlooked.

An important question to continuously ask yourself as a travel journalist: Am I describing (or even thinking about) the characters in my stories as real people? Or are there sentences in your stories that read like:

    Costa Rica is filled with friendly natives.

If there’s any doubt at all, re-examine the way you’re writing. A key tool to remember when describing people is the 5Ws:

  • Who is this person? Not just “a Costa Rican” but his her or her name.
  • What is the context? What is their role in the story, as well as your role as the narrator?
  • Where exactly is the action taking place?
  • When is it occurring?
  • Why? What is the overall context?

Your goal should be providing concrete details and history, as opposed to abstractions and generalities.

Attribution / citing

Another area that’s often problematic in travel writing is bringing in source material (whether background info, images, or quotes) and giving proper attribution for it. Nearly all travel articles benefit from the additional context brought by outside voices. Notice how the precise naming / locating of characters / quotes strengthens this passage by David Page:

I’ve been chatting with Carolina Miranda, former staff reporter at Time Magazine, now a prolific freelancer, travel writer, blogger, USC Annenberg Fellow, and contributor to numerous Lonely Planet Latin America titles. She’s based in Brooklyn, and has flown all the way across the continent in hopes of hearing big ideas. She hasn’t heard any yet.

“There’s been a lot on what we should do to market ourselves,” she says. “But how does all of this actually change the nature of the job?”

Notice how much stronger her quote is after being properly “introduced” in the preceding paragraph. Too many writers fail to get the most basic information (first name, last name) of their interview subjects, much less the relevant context of their occupations, experience, etc., which can add new layers to their quotes.

Indirect citing

Similarly, many research-heavy forms such as roundups often contain information that you as the writer simply couldn’t have known firsthand. It’s your obligation to let the reader know where the info came from by correctly linking as well as citing in the text. Here’s an example from an article entitled 23 incredible technologies you’ll see by 2021:

4G will be the new standard in cell phone networks. What this means: Your phone will download data about as fast as your home computer can. While you’ve probably seen lots of 4G banter from the big cell providers, it’s not very widely available in most phones. However, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that both Verizon and the EU intend to do away with 3G entirely by 2013, which will essentially bring broadband-level speeds to wireless devices on cell networks. It won’t do away with standard internet providers, but it will bring “worldwide WiFi” capabilities to anyone with a 4G data plan.

Linking to photographic work used

A great option for helping illustrate your work is to search the Creative Commons resources at different photo communities like Flickr. There are literally millions of images that are free to use; however, their usage must meet the different eligibility requirements (for example: educational work only, or for use only in other Creative Commons-licensed sites) chosen by the owner of the work, and properly attributed according to his or her instructions.

In general, proper attribution — whether for images, original source material, or of your subjects — only takes a few extra seconds. Don’t look at it just as a courtesy to the original sources, but as your proper duty as a careful journalist and writer. From your readers (including possibly the people from whom the quotes were taken) to editors and other journos, proper attribution shows that you’re respecting your craft.

* For more on the concepts discussed above, see the curriculum of the MatadorU Travel Writing program.

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