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The Importance of Developing Your Own Ethics in Travel Journalism

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by Joe Baur Nov 2, 2015

IT STILL SEEMS LITTLE IS KNOWN ABOUT the world of travel journalism or how much of it is produced. Some is created through personal travel where the author foots the entirety of the bill. Some publications have a staff dedicated to travel and will cover the writers’ expenses. But this is happening less in a world where everyone wants to be a travel writer and editors can get a story without worrying about paying health benefits or salaries. Finally, there’s a substantial amount of work being created through press trips or otherwise supported travel. The latter is perhaps both the least understood and most controversial, so we’ll keep our focus there.

We’re all familiar with tourism bureaus. Almost every town, county and major city in North America has some entity promoting travel to their respective region. The same can be said for nearly every country on Earth.

Tourism accounts for a huge chunk of the world economy. Without it, many nations the world over would have a heart attack at the sudden gap in their budget. Ireland, for example, saw 7.3 million visitors in 2014. That resulted in 5 billion euro in economic activity.

In order to keep tourists flocking or to attract them, many tourism bureaus or marketing organizations that represent travel to a specific region will cover the travel expenses of a writer, photographer, or filmmaker in order to cover the experience in certain media outlets. Where it goes from here depends on the writer. Those with a large enough personal audience can put the content on their website. Others need an assignment with a widely read publication.

Press-supported travel made its way into the mainstream thanks to a 2009 Gawker article that went after a travel writer for producing content for The New York Times that was the result of a press-supported trip. David Page offered his take on the ordeal a few years back, but it’s still just as applicable today.

Quite possibly to the surprise of Gawker, many attacked the publication for spending their investigative resources on going after an independent writer. After all, it’s hardly a financially lucrative field for most of us. Gawker was reading the situation black and white. They saw: Journalists cannot have their expenses covered or objectivity goes out the window.

It’s an easy sentiment to agree with at face value. If you’re being trotted about to the finest restaurants and nicest hotels, surely your view of an area will be skewed. But how is this any different from a staff writer who can do exactly the same and know they’re covered when they fill out their expense report? They’re getting just as manicured an experience as an independent writer who was supported by the respective tourism bureau.

I’ve said it before, but I think it warrants repeating. If we’re going to flatly condemn independent journalists who receive travel support, then we’re essentially saying that the only viable voices in travel journalism are those who can afford to shell out a few thousand bucks for a $50 payback. And in order to create the amount of diverse content that is expected of professional travel writers, we need to travel often and to different corners of the globe. Nobody can afford that. If I were to pay for every single trip without exception, I’d be telling far fewer stories. But I want to tell more stories, not fewer. I want more voices in travel journalism, not fewer.

This is why I say any travel journalist needs to develop their own ethical framework. We can all agree that the goal is to maintain objectivity and honesty. Will you accept travel on tourism’s dime, ready to basically regurgitate their press release? For me, that would be ethically troubling. Not because it’s essentially a waste of everyone’s time involved or because you’re not paying your own travel, but because it’s being dishonest to readers. Besides, so much of today’s news is essentially generated off press releases. I’d rather read an honest experience from a writer whose flight was covered than a paraphrased press release using every breathtaking travel cliche in the book.

Getting outside

There’s still the question of getting outside the manicured experience. I actually strongly challenge this sentiment that we write what we’re told. The majority of my press-related travel has allowed for personal exploration where I could go out and do whatever I want, wander into any neighborhood I felt like. And since those are the primary stories I want to tell — that is, those that stray from the tourist trek — I make sure to do my research in advance to know where to go for those stories.

Sure, there are press trips that have you scheduled for 12 hours a day and it’s difficult to step outside the box. But even then, you can have honest conversations with your hosts. I’ve yet to work with a tourism agency that shied away from their respective histories — good or bad. I think that’s because the field is increasingly understanding that travelers want honest experiences. Considering how interconnected the world is, I think we’ve all come to grips with the fact that Utopia does not exist and that the grass is hardly greener on the other side — just varying shades of color.

More simply put, I once met a tourism rep at my hotel. The first place they took me was the city’s red-light district full of brothels and drug addicts. Along the way I met small business owners moving into the area to take advantage of affordable real estate and bring an artsy crowd to the area. It was a story I enjoyed learning about and I hardly felt like he was presenting his city as farting rainbows and unicorns. Yet there are many publications out there that wouldn’t let me publish that story, because I didn’t pay for my hotel.

Who’s winning in this scenario? The publication, because they held firm on an archaic standard that refuses to change with the times? Or is, perhaps, the reader losing out on hearing an interesting story?

Not a perfect world

Those who think work from independent journalists working from a press trip shouldn’t see the light of day don’t give readers enough credit. We’re all born with a fairly well-calibrated bullshit detector. If a writer goes on a press trip and comes back with a rehash of what’s already written on the tourism website, that writer isn’t going to develop a following. Without a following, they won’t find many folks in travel interested in working with them. Readers want honesty and I don’t think they care about the financials of how a story was put together.

In a perfect world, I would love to see travel journalism completely divorced from the financials of sponsored press trips if only to be done with this whole debate. Regrettably, the world is far from perfect. Until then, I’m going to use every resource possible to tell as many stories possible. I won’t go on a press trip just because it was offered to me, nor will I stay at a hotel because they offered to host me. I have my own criteria for accepting press trips or any kind of travel support.

Is there a story I’m interested in here? If so, will I have the freedom to pursue it?

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