Today is the debut of a media column by National Golf Editor Tim McDonald. The column will take a broad look at some of the ills of travel journalism, and future monthly columns will take a look at both the good and bad in the world of golf media, both in print and broadcast.
In journalism, there should be a note of skepticism between the writer and the source. Human sources often have agendas, sometimes hidden, sometimes in plain view.
One of the jobs of the journalist is to determine whether the source is trustworthy enough to override the natural skepticism. It's an ongoing war, one that reputable reporters deal with constantly.
There is one genre of journalism, however, that doesn't seem to understand there is a war going on.
Not only do many travel writers seem oblivious of this conflict, or willfully ignorant of it, they too often consort with the enemy. In nearly a quarter century in journalism, I have never witnessed such a chummy, journalistic relationship as the one that exists between most travel writers and the big, hungry PR machine.
It seems all the PR people have to do is dangle a free trip and goodies in front of a travel writer and they are assured of glowing reviews.
Most good reporters treat public relations people politely, because PR people can be good sources of information, even if that information is necessarily one-sided. Most reporters also know to take PR people with a grain of salt: the PR person's very job is to "sell" the writer on whatever product, destination or service he or she has been hired by.
Travel writers too often treat PR people as ultimate sources. This is great - and easy - for the PR person and the travel writer, but, of course, the reader suffers because he or she is getting misinformation or, at the very least, incomplete information.
Travel writing as a whole has gone downhill over the last quarter century. An ethical debate grew in the 1980s over this very subject, with many newspapers axing writers who accepted subsidized press trips.
Still, not much has changed.
"For starters, there's almost nothing negative," South Florida Sun Sentinel travel editor Thomas Swick wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review. "This is partly a vestige of the old days of free trips when it was bad form to speak unfavorably of a place that had treated you lavishly."
Swick also wrote: "A tone of uncritical approval crept into travel journalism that has yet to be eradicated...The irony is that in their mission to "inform" their readers, travel sections misinform them through their unrelenting good cheer."
Swick noted most travel writing is of the first-person variety and usually involves a traveling companion, spouse or friend.
"These two prim sojourners invariably stay in good hotels ('elegant' if in a city, 'rustic' in the country)," he wrote. "And eat in fine restaurants savoring the 'succulent regional cuisine.' "
It's even worse in travel magazines, both online and in print.
A random review of 50 online stories by 19 freelance travel writers, all members of the Society of American Travel Writers, found precious little "negative reporting." You want "unrelenting good cheer," find your local freelance travel writer.
A small sampling:
"Soon a silver tray with coffee and a glass of iced water, always served here with coffee, and the famous chocolate torte was set before me," wrote SATW member Tess Bridgwater about a visit to Vienna. "Does it deserve its reputation? The answer is Mmm."
Freelance travel writers who specialize in the Caribbean seem to be particularly guilty. This is partly because the Caribbean is such a great place to freeload, and partly because the Caribbean, so dependent on tourism, aggressively woos travel writers.
In 2004, travel and tourism in the Caribbean is forecast to generate $40.3 billion in economic activity, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
"Travel and tourism is without question the most important export sector in the region," WTTC president Jean-Claude Baumgarten said at a June 2004 conference. "It helps to diversify the Caribbean economy, stimulate entrepreneurship, catalyze investment, create sustainable jobs and helps development in local communities."
The Caribbean Hotel Association even hands out awards to members of the media who CHA members feel "foster excellence in tourism reporting in the Caribbean."
It may come as no surprise the winners almost unfailingly put the Caribbean in a good light.
For example, Mark Meredith, one of the recent winners, wrote a story on the Asa Wright Nature Center under the headline: "Promoting Trinidad and Tobago."
Even non-winners are almost overwhelming in their "unrelenting good cheer."
For example, Brenda Fine, another SATW member, wrote for bridalguide.com: "Who knew a tropical island could be so worldly? Islands in the Caribbean - aside from being superlatively romantic - are a mini-United Nations, each has its own mix of cultures blended into the island traditions. Immerse yourselves in Dutch, Spanish, English Scandinavian or French customs and food while you enjoy the bliss of a tropical paradise - the best of both worlds."
Or SATW member Barbara Radin Fox, with Larry Fox, on Miami, for romanticgetaways.com: "In this sun-kissed paradise, the center of action is South Beach, which has it all: a long and wide beach, beautiful hotels, excellent restaurants, and neon-lit streets that pulsate with Latin and rock rhythms."
A typical, if cliched, description of South Beach, but not a word of the 369 crimes committed on South Beach in 2003, including rape, robbery, felony assaults, auto theft and burglaries. Isn't that something you might want to know if you were planning a trip to South Beach?
So why rock the boat? It's a good life, with free trips to exotic places, and free food at great restaurants.
"Are you itching to break into the glamorous world of travel writing," reads a come-on from freelancetravelwriters.com. "To see your name in glossy print and receive regular invitations for fabulous VIP press trips that cost you only the taxi fare to the airport?"
In today's economic climate, any number of publications are forced to accept subsidized trips - including TravelGolf.com - if they want to produce travel stories for readers.
But it doesn't necessarily follow that the resulting stories must be unrelentingly cheerful. We here at TravelGolf.com have been guilty of that in the past, and are working to be more objective and critical.
It may not always work - and we are sure to alienate some powerful PR moguls - but in the end, we want readers to have a place to come for good, objective reviews of places to go and golf courses to play.
One last word from Swick: "Why do the travel magazines, lavish with tips and sumptuous photographs, leave us feeling so empty?"
Hopefully, you'll be able to read TravelGolf.com and not feel that way.
September 2, 2004
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