Friday, June 19, 2009

Questioning Travel Blogger Ethics: Painting With Too Broad a Brush?

Nicholas Kralev, in his blog On The Fly (published by The Washington Times), revisits an ongoing discussion about the ethics of travel blogs (and, by extension, all blogs) that aren’t written by “professional” journalists. While fairly objective, in my view the article perpetrates some myths about travel writing – on blogs or in traditional media. I wish Kralev had taken this nascent discussion and expanded it a lot.

Kralev writes that, “the blogosphere has no editorial rules; authors are free to write anything they want, and they don’t answer to editors.” Generally true. He adds: “The absence of an ethics code hasn’t been lost on travel companies, which have been offering bloggers free or discounted flights, hotel stays and meals. Most mainstream media organizations are almost certain to decline such gifts.” I guess also technically true, but....

Having been in the “mainstream media” as a writer, editor, and publisher, I agree that any outward appearance of favoritism in the industry is kept pretty well in check. And generally freebies are frowned upon. But I also know that there are myriad subtle shadings of favoritism. Big advertisers may be more likely to have their products reviewed in the publication. Publishers can design special editorial sections to appeal to an industry or group of advertisers. And writers who successfully pitch a destination story idea will be paid (by the magazine) for their words and insight into that place – maybe not getting directly “paid” to travel there, but they will be recompensated for their travels by the article sale.

Mainstream Media are businesses – they’re in it to maximize profits. Travel publications want readers to desire to visit a place, and to buy the next issue of the magazine; purchase airfare from advertisers; and shop with other travel suppliers – negative destination articles don’t sell magazines. Conversely, few, if any, bloggers make enough money to pay even their minimal web hosting costs.

The world is full of self promotion. Lodging properties game the system on TripAdvisor and other travel review sites by recruiting folks to post glowing reviews; small book publishers have been known to round up friends to write great reviews on Amazon; and many of your “followers” on Twitter are out to sell you porn or cameras or airline tickets or their product/service of the moment.

I believe that most travel bloggers are in it for the joy of writing and sharing their thoughts. To me, they are the least offensive self-promotional folks out there. As long as a travel (or other) blogger indicates that his or her trip was paid for, a review can be taken in its proper context. And even if the writer doesn’t explicitly state that a trip was a freebie, well, Sunset Magazine doesn’t always say in the opening of an article on North Wonderfulstan that there’s an ad for the same destination in the back of the book.

The common complaint is that when freebies are given, the travel blogger seldom writes anything negative. Yet so it is with Mainstream Media. Negative articles (covering any topic) usually come from deep “investigative” research. Seldom does a Mainstream Media travel writer say anything bad about any destination (look no further than the Sunday travel section of any newspaper). If anything, I believe that travel blog writers might be more likely to be objective or write a critical piece simply because they don’t have a Mainstream Media advertising director sitting in the next office. Bloggers are known for being opinionated, and revel in voicing those opinions.

A consumer is probably more likely to be fooled by a slick color brochure for Tropical Holiday Paradise than by any blogger’s write-up of the property – no matter how glowing the words. Another check-and-balance is that most bloggers offer their readers a way to comment directly and immediately on their postings. Blog readers are quick to slam anything they disagree with or perceive as inaccurate.

There have been too many Mainstream Media articles painting bloggers as not being “real” writers. I’ve seen some terrible writing on travel (and other) blogs, but I’ve also seen third-grade writing (and research and editing) in the Wall St. Journal and National Geographic Traveler and a host of other publications. And I’ve also seen – especially in the travel realm – many instances where it’s obvious that the writer of the mainstream-publication article does not know the subject; has not even traveled to the destination; or has been edited (supposedly by professional editors) so that a great deal of the story is missing or inaccurate.

Lastly, I even dislike the word “blogger.” We are writers. Some of us are good, some are crappy, most fall in the middle. But that’s true everywhere. There’s a class-distinction feeling to having a different name for folks who write about travel and other topics on “non-professional” websites or blogs. We don’t call newspaper writers “newsies” nor magazine writers “maggies.” Let’s get away from the somewhat pejorative term “blogger” and just all be writers.