Do free press trips allow for greater access, or
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
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
“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
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
“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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