The bottom line of travel writing
Tourism boards and travel writers often connect at industry events, such as ITB Berlin. (Sean Gallup/Getty)
Do free press trips allow for greater access, or biased coverage?
That’s the question causing conflict and contention in the travel community, sparked by an early April BBC Fast Track report on the ethics and growing popularity of travel blogging and junketism – the practice of tourism boards providing free or subsidised trips to travel writers in exchange for publicity.
The debate ballooned in online forums and social media, with about seven in 10 respondents on BBC World News’ Facebook page asserting travel bloggers cannot provide balanced views when they enjoy free travel. “General rule of thumb, we are more demanding when we pay for something, hence more critical/appreciative. Freebies change that for sure,” wrote World News Facebook fan Savitha Peri.
A discussion on the LinkedIn Travel Editors and Freelance Journalists board saw some writers rushing to their own defence, with travel writer Janet Groene pointing out that magazine and newspaper staffers have expense accounts and are on salary wherever they go. Bloggers, even those on junkets she said, often pay for trips in time, attention and extra expenses like airport shuttle/parking, meals en route and special clothing and equipment. “Their trips may be dictated by the advertising department,” wrote Groene about traditional media. “Mine are chosen because I expect to get great stories.”
And while the debate over junkets rages in the virtual world, the practice does, in fact, have a history of official regulation. In October 2009 the US Federal Trade Commission announced regulations requiring writers and bloggers to disclose to their readers any “material connections” with providers of goods and services they endorse. The US-based Society of Professional Journalists goes a step further, recommending journalists “refuse gifts, favours, fees, free travel and special treatment [that] compromise[s] journalistic integrity”. On the blogger front, some have proposed a travel bloggers pledge – a set of self-made oaths by which bloggers would promise to disclose all freebies or payments received in return for reviews; express honest opinions about experiences and products; and clearly label advertorial content as such.
We’ve taken the debate to travel publications and organisations themselves, asking them about their policies with regards to press trips. While some, such as Gadling, Conde Nast Traveler and Afar, could not be reached for comment and have no published stance on the issue, the results reveal that a wide variety of traditional media and travel organisations do not accept free press trips in order to guard against a perceived conflict of interest – but those that do cite access as a top reason to allow the practice and put rules in place to prevent undeserved promotion.
New York Times
According to the New York Times ethics handbook, “no writer or editor for the Travel section, whether on assignment or not, may accept free or discounted services of any sort from any element of the travel industry.”
The rules are in place “to guard against conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflict”, said Danielle Rhoades Ha, director of communications.
Lonely Planet guidebook authors are not allowed to accept free press trips, junkets, accommodation or meals, regardless of coverage. According to Rana Freedman, senior manager consumer marketing and communications for Lonely Planet Americas, however, there may be exceptions in rare circumstances, such as when it is the only possible way to research a destination.
“Reader trust is core to our brand. Travellers know they can trust our information because it is independently researched and reviewed,” Freedman said. “[The policies] protect the integrity of our content and ensure [guidebook authors] can conduct their research free of any agenda or influence that could come with a press-trip itinerary”.
In 2008, Lonely Planet came under scrutiny when Thomas Kohnstamm, a former Lonely Planet guidebook writer, released the memoir Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, claiming to have accepted freebies due to lack of time and money, which compromised his recommendations. According to Stephen Palmer, guidebook publisher at Lonely Planet, “At the end of the day this is a matter of trust. Unfortunately, Thomas Kohnstamm’s activities were not consistent with our policies or that relationship based on trust.”
The budget-focused magazine allows writers to go on press trips.
“I’m going to break with industry orthodoxy a bit and say that on rare occasions, [a free press trip] just might allow us to send a reporter to a location that our budget might not normally allow and deliver great service to readers,” said Robert Firpo-Cappiello, Budget Travel executive editor. “But we would consider a press trip only if we make it absolutely clear to the trip sponsor right up front that we are not guaranteeing coverage or a positive review… [and] Budget Travel will never let our readers down by endorsing a destination in exchange for a junket.”
The guidebook company works with tourism boards around the world and does accept press trips.
Press trips allow Fodor’s editors and select senior writers to have “firsthand access to and experience in locations” to offer readers “a broad overview of a destination”, said Katherine Fleming, a senior publicist with Random House Digital Publishing.
The guidebook company could not be reached for comment. However, its editorial policy online does not forbid their use, but states that “the airlines, cruise lines, tour operators, consolidators, national tourist boards and other travel firms mentioned in our Frommers.com Newsletter and our popular Frommer's Travel Guides series have not paid a single penny for such mention. All establishment listings and reviews in Frommer's Guidebooks and online at Frommers.com are based on our author's individual experiences…”
BBC Travel does not allow press trips unless it is the only opportunity for press to be a part of something before the public launch, or the story is editorially justified and would be financially unattainable otherwise. According to the BBC’s editorial guidelines, any proposal to accept such a trip will be referred to a senior editorial figure who will ensure the acceptance of such facilities do not compromise the BBC's reputation. In the event that a travel provider does facilitate a trip, information will be provided for a range of suppliers and not just those who provided assistance.
“It’s very rare that a story is so expensive that we wouldn’t cover the cost,” said Allison Busacca, editor of BBC Travel. “However, when BBC Travel contributors have participated in a press trip, we have made it clear to both the writer and the company that there is no promise of positive coverage or promotion.”
BBC’s Fast Track
Fast Track does not permit its reporters or crews to take free press trips organised by tourist boards, airlines or tour operators.
“To ensure editorial independence and comply with BBC guidelines, we always pay our own way or make a substantial contribution towards costs where the actual value or cost of an experience is hard to exactly quantify”, said Mike London, editor at BBC’s Fast Track program.
Huffington Post staff are not allowed to accept free press trips. Bloggers who aren't staff journalists but post on the organisation’s blog platform are also not allowed to use their affiliation with Huffington Post to obtain free press trips, and the site’s editors decline submissions related to junkets.
“Readers should expect that our pieces aren't influenced by outside sources and that information we provide is based on the same conditions that any traveller might expect,” said Adam Rose, a standards editor at Huffington Post.
Travel + Leisure
While on assignment, Travel + Leisure editors, writers and photographers travel incognito whenever possible and do not take press trips or accept free travel of any kind, said editor-in-chief Nancy Novogrod.
“We need to be – and are –a reliable and trusted source for our readers,” Novogrod said. “There can be no question about the reason for our coverage of a destination, other than our dedication to providing our readers with the best travel advice and insights possible.”
National Geographic Traveler
National Geographic Traveler could not be reached for comment, however according to its writer’s guidelines, the magazine does “not accept proposals about trips that are subsidized in any way”.
According to Matt Dornic, senior director of public relations for CNN Worldwide, the network’s policies do not allow staff reporters to take free trips to cover travel, leisure or entertainment. He could not comment on the policy for freelancers.
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