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The Travel Writer's Dilemma

07/31/2013 12:06 EDT | Updated 09/30/2013 05:12 EDT

The first time I covered a Toronto Blue Jays game I walked to the media entrance of the stadium, where I was issued a square card attached to a lanyard that allowed me to make my way to the press box. Once there, I followed the crowd of veteran journalists who queued up for a long spread of food, a complimentary feast that was replenished through the game. This was 1993, and the Blue Jays were world champions flush with cash. Had I purchased the food I ate, it would have cost $50 at a restaurant. Had I paid for an equivalent-value ticket, which gave me a view of the field looking down on home plate, it would have been another $50.

But I was a journalist working at the game and I paid nothing. No one ever asked me or any other sports journalist to disclose the price of the meal or the seat value. Readers don't see notations at the end of sports articles that say the writer received admission to a game that the public is charged to attend. The same goes for concert reviewers, who receive free entry and ideal seats to performances that can cost some members of the public $200 or more. Movie reviewers, who see films for free before they're released to the public, have their admission sponsored by the movie industry. Those reviewers never have to write that their tickets were handed to them by the production company.

That's not the case with travel journalists. Some people -- including the Federal Trade Commission of the United States -- expect a writer to declare if a work trip was paid for by a tourism destination or if business entities mentioned in an article contributed to the experience of a visit. That's a blatant double standard.

Several large media organizations won't publish articles if a travel writer received assistance from a tourism board, or they will put a disclosure at the end of the article saying the trip was sponsored. Those same organizations will allow multiple members of their editorial units to accept free entry into big-ticket events -- the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics, World Cup soccer games, film festival galas -- that would cost large amounts of dollars. Those journalists are never asked to disclose in their articles or broadcasts that they received credentials (fancy word for free pass). What they do at these events is considered work by their establishments, but what travel writers do is deemed a perk or play.

The truth is travel journalism, when done well, is the best writing you will read in a publication. It provides insight into cultures and experiences, it adds names and faces to a destination without the trite prose of a marketer or sales agent, it reduces the risk a traveller might feel about going to a place that would otherwise seem uncomfortably foreign. Travel writing should bust down stereotypes and attack outdated ideas of a destination with fresh commentary and an honest, fair portrayal. Doing so is work. More than that, it's vital.

A Double Standard When It Comes to Travel Writing

With newsrooms cutting their staff numbers dramatically, travel writing budgets are quickly being phased out. Journalists are working for far less. Without the fortune of a company expense account, their travel options are diminished. That means travel journalists are more and more dependent on tourism boards to provide the support necessary to thoroughly gather and disseminate information on a destination. Whether the journalist's trip is covered by a corporate expense account from a media organization or the expense account of a tourism agency shouldn't matter and in the case of professional writers it doesn't matter.

These two articles published on Vacay.ca would not have been written without some form of assistance from a tourism board:

Here are two that received no assistance:

Here are two where the tourism board paid for the transportation costs to the destination but not for the food or drink written about in the businesses highlighted:

If there is a difference in tone, quality, or objectivity I'd love to know.

As readers search for the voices to listen to in a fragmented media world, the same principles should apply with the travel writing they consume as with other choices they make. Is it a quality product? Do the content providers really care about the end result -- or is it just a job to them? Are they in it for perks or is passion behind the work? Is there a level of craftsmanship as well as professionalism?

Those are questions for advertisers and sponsors to ask too. When you invite a journalist to your destination is his or her audience going to act on what is written? More than ad impressions and circulation numbers, it is audience action that many advertisers and marketers are starting to focus on.

At Vacay.ca, we've demonstrated leadership in advocacy in the digital publishing industry. Here are examples:

Read the rest of this article on Vacay.ca.