Sex, Lies and Free Accommodation: the Ethics of Travel Writing

Travel writers are often criticized for unethical behaviour. Can they change?

Originally appeared in the King’s Journalism Review in January 2013


Mike Albo had just finished a workout.

He was multi-tasking in the lobby of his gym: checking email, talking to a friend on the phone, and thinking about his next column for the New York Times (NYT).

A new email appeared. He read it aloud to his friend. Tears began spilling down his face.

Albo was fired.

He knew the NYT policy on freebies, but figured if he wasn’t writing for them, he was safe. But the NYT takes its ethics code seriously.

His rent was close to $1,000. He was only making $900 a month with his bi-weekly column. He had no pension plan, contract or health insurance. There was no way he would be able to afford a trip out of his own pocket. Albo was a freelancer.

His writing included travel articles for the NYT and other publications. In 2009, he was invited on a press trip. He accepted.

“If you’re not going to butter my bread,” Albo says, “I have to go out and find work where I can.”

Ethics codes, including those at CBC, the NYT and the Guardian often list freebies as perceived conflicts of interest. Each code states these should be avoided. But without free trips, rooms, and meals for travel writers, there would be little travel writing. This doesn’t mean they’re ethical.

The fundamental purpose of journalism is to write for the reader.

With so many glowing travel articles, it is crucial that readers question the practice of press trips and conflicts of interest. Is the information readers are getting the truth, or does it stem from a culture of not wanting to burn the company who paid for the trip? This would result in a conflict of interest.

Ivor Shapiro, chair of Ryerson’s School of Journalism in Toronto, says travel writing ethics are complicated. “In order to write about travel, we need to travel – and travel is expensive.”

Writers can remove themselves from these conflicts. Shapiro notes the easiest way is transparency.

“If you take money from a travel company, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s a bad piece of journalism. It’s simply an ethical problem.”

The confusion over travel writing extends past the ethics of accepting free trips.

Former Lonely Planet writer Thomas Kohnstamm traveled to the northeast coast of Brazil in 2004, writing for the 2005 edition of Lonely Planet: Brazil. He later wrote a book about his time in Brazil and the travel writing industry. Kohnstamm was sometimes unethical. His review of a Canoa sushi restaurant praised the “friendly table service.” Kohnstamm’s book, Do Travel Writers Go To Hell, revealed that he didn’t actually try the sushi; he had sex with the waitress on one of the restaurant’s back tables.

Kohnstamm wasn’t writing journalism.

A clear definition of travel writing is important because travel writing has many aspects, including lists of ‘bests,’ guidebooks, and in-depth stories. Perhaps two definitions should be proposed: travel writing for guidebooks and travel journalism for newspaper/magazine publication. The latter is the journalistic writing where ethics and transparency are most crucial.

American travel writer Thomas Swick is currently trying to sell a piece called Press Trip to Branson.

It’s a hard sell, but he knew this when he began writing.

That’s because the piece is “not the kind of story that would promote Branson…it’s quite critical.”

Swick describes Branson, a city of just over 10,000 in southern Missouri,as a “Midwestern town full of senior citizens listening to washed-up entertainers.”

He says his title is openly transparent and ironic. “I liked the combination of two undesirables.” He hopes the piece will show that “any place can be a source of interesting writing.”

Swick writes from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His desk overlooks a canal, his books never far from his computer. A small statue of Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa oversees his work, propped up on his desk. Swick (no relation to King’s professor David Swick) bought the figure in Brazil; it represents both his affection for the country and for Pessoa’s work.

Swick was travel editor for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel (now the South Florida Sun Sentinel) from 1989 until 2008.  His press trip experience came after he left this job. He says he was curious after years of being professionally opposed.

The experience confirmed what he always thought. “It’s hard to write an interesting story from a press trip.”

But Swick had no problem writing his Branson story in a critical tone.

Swick is challenging the practice of writing solely positive stories based on press trips.

His fight isn’t against the trips, but the writing that results.

“Much more pernicious is the longstanding culture of uncritical, overly-positive and ultimately dishonest travel writing.”

The Condé Nast Traveler magazine and the NYT are also challenging the system.

In 1987, the Condé Nast Traveler was launched with the philosophy of not accepting freebies. Their slogan remains “Truth in Travel.”

Condé Nast Traveler is the “world’s premier travel magazine” with a print circulation of 811,754. Its website says the goal of the magazine is to experience “the world exactly as their readers do,” meaning writers pay their own way.

The site reads, “this guiding principle allows for honest, fair reporting on all aspects of the industry.”

The NYT takes its ethics code one step further. It “exercises care” in accepting stories from writers who have taken press trips in the past; “such a reputation can embarrass us.”

Former NYT columnist Mike Albo says he understands a policy where these trips aren’t allowed. “They want to be as airtight as possible,” he says. “It’s just a bit of a fantasy that they think freelancers, especially, can abide by this.”

Nova Scotia travel writer Sandra Phinney says the majority of her travel is paid for by tourism organizations. Without this, many of her stories wouldn’t be possible.

In 2011, Phinney traveled through New Brunswick, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador. Her trip cost $10,000, shared by the three provinces.

She wrote six stories on her trip, making $1,200. She spent $600 of her own money. The net cost of the trip, had she paid, would be minus $9,400.

Phinney is one of 185 writers in the Travel Media Association of Canada. The organization represents published, paid travel writers. They operate as a listserv for upcoming press trips, and offer developmental sessions for writers.

But ethics are generally not included in these meetings.

“We kind of assume that (the writers) know what the ethics are because they’re spelled out quite clearly in the policy,” says Michele Sponagle, national president for the organization.

The policy states writers must disclose the name of the paying organization, when possible. Sponagle says it is the decision of media outlets on whether to disclose this information; writers don’t have a say.

Phinney did not disclose this in her 2011 Maritime tour articles – in publication or to her editors.

“I never have (disclosed), and I’ve never been asked,” she says. “I’d feel fine if the magazine said the trip was sponsored by the tourism board, but … I write for the reader, and don’t feel I’m deceiving if this is not mentioned.”

A study by Folker Hanusch asked 85 Australian travel writers their opinions on ethics. The study, published in the July 2012 edition of Journalism, showed that 87.1 per cent of travel writers strongly believe their writing should always disclose who paid for the trip. The majority of travel writers (96.5 per cent) also view true accounts of travel experience important.

A study by Folker Hanusch revealed that Australian travel writers view ethics highly. (Laura Hubbard infographic / KJR)

A study by Folker Hanusch revealed that Australian travel writers view ethics highly. (Laura Hubbard infographic / KJR)

But Phinney doesn’t see an ethical issue or need for transparency. As a reader of other travel writing, it’s not something she questions.

“I think readers are discerning and can pick up something that smacks of advertorial,” she says. “I expect the writing to be honest and authentic, and it matters not if the writer paid.”

Phinney writes from her home in Canaan, Nova Scotia. Her desk faces south, overlooking the Tusket River. The critters in her yard keep her company – chipmunks, ducks and a beaver she’s named Big Bertha.

Many of her stories are complimentary because the majority of her trips have been positive. But she doesn’t write positive stories because she feels she has to. If a trip is negative or a meal is “only OK” she doesn’t feel uncomfortable writing about it. It’s just that that isn’t usually the case, she says.

But her March 2009 article Into Africa, published in Nova Scotia’s Coastal Life magazine, tells the tale of a not-so-pleasant trip to Senegal, West Africa. She traveled with her sister, but she wouldn’t have written differently had it been a press trip rather than personal travel.

“I don’t need to wax poetic about something,” she says. That piece won the Best Outdoors/Adventure Feature award from the Travel Media Association of Canada in 2009.

“Travel writing is bloody hard work. It’s part of how I earn my living.”

Phinney’s work isn’t limited to travel writing – she also writes profiles, business pieces, advertorials and teaches workshops through the Travel Media Association.

A recent trip to New Brunswick involved interviewing a member of Kayak N.B. who explores ancient portage routes in the province. New Brunswick Tourism paid for her transportation and accommodations. She’ll be pitching this story to Canadian Geographic.

If the story is published, it won’t run a disclaimer about who handled the bill. Dan Rubinstein, Canadian Geographiceditor, says transparency is not a concern for the magazine.

He says he doesn’t “disclose that somebody else has paid for these trips because we are normally selective in choosing the destinations.”

Rubinstein says he wants his writers to be honest, even if that means being critical. The magazine, with its circulation of almost 200,000 (in 2010), holds a high reputation.

But Thomas Swick does see an issue with press trips. He thinks most travel stories are positive because of the nature of the trips.

“They put out the red carpet for you – they make it a very pleasant experience.”

Phinney began travel writing because she thought it was romantic. It wasn’t until she was well into her writing business that she joined the Travel Media Association of Canada.

“I quickly learned that I was not about to get a job with something big and have them send me all over the world. I was just so naïve.”

Phinney says her start in the travel writing business taught her to look in her own backyard for stories. She still enjoys traveling in the Maritimes and writes for many local publications.

Her résumé shows articles in more than 60 publications, yet she hasn’t taken a single ethics course. Nor does she know what the future will offer in terms of her career and ethical exploration.

“Who knows? I may give up travel writing. Or decide it’s like prostitution and that I’m fine with being a whore.”