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Calling on the SATW to clean up the sorry state of travel writing

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

The state of the travel writing industry these days is all milk and honey - if you're a travel writer. But, if you're a reader trying to decide where to go on vacation - it sucks.

"For starters, there's almost nothing negative," wrote the travel editor for South Florida's Sun Sentinel, Thomas Swick, in the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review. "... 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."

Unrelenting good cheer is a motto that could be assigned to the members of the Society of American Travel Writers, an organization that counts about 1,300 travel professionals among its membership. An extensive sampling of stories written by SATW writers over a series of months dredged up more good cheer than "Up with People" on steroids.

This doesn't necessarily mean readers are getting lies or inaccurate stories, it simply means they aren't getting the whole picture. Still, you could make a case that by not telling the whole story, the story is inherently inaccurate.

The SATW is the preeminent professional organization in a profession run amok, a profession that in large part exchanges freebie trips for guaranteed glowing copy, like K Street lobbyists currying favor with politicians.

The SATW, a tax-exempt group based in Raleigh, N.C., certainly started out with good intentions. It was founded nearly 50 years ago by a group of editors hoping to raise the standards of the profession. It has fairly stringent requirements for those looking to join and it has a very thorough code of ethics.

It warns against plagiarism, for example, and admonishes members to avoid conflicts of interest, telling them not to "accept payment or courtesies in exchange for an agreement to produce favorable material about a travel destination, service, or supplier that is contrary to his or her own professional appraisal."

It also warns "members who are or have been employed by or associated with a travel destination, service firm or supplier" to disclose that information to potential editors or publishers prior to accepting an assignment.

But, there is a fine line between accepting "payments or courtesies in exchange for favorable material" and writing unrelenting positive copy and thereby ensuring you'll be invited back for more of those free trips to exotic locations. The travel industry is a cozy community and those writers who develop a reputation for telling the bad along with the good may find a lot of doors closed to them.

There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of examples, some of which I've detailed in the past. Follow these links for some of them:

Want the real deal on Caribbean golf? Don't ask the PR writers
Travel writers often turn a blind eye to reality
Magazine golf tips often go far out of bounds
This month's golf media: best clubs, richest golfers, petty Seve and wild dogs
With Shark gone and Tiger slumping, 'self-absorbed' golfers turning off viewers

SATW President Milton Fullman said the society does monitor stories written by its members.

"We have people who monitor a lot of it," Fullman said. "I would not say all of it - we keep clip books on what people are writing about."

There is also a disciplinary process for members who violate the society's code of ethics.

"It's used when it's needed," said Fullman, who would not release figures on the number of society members disciplined. "I wouldn't say 'regularly,' I would say (it's used) when the need arises."

Fullman implied that negative comments SATW members may have written could have been cut by editors of newspapers, magazines and other publications.

"As a freelance writer, if I submitted an article that had negatives in it, and the editor at the magazine took it out or the editor at the newspaper took it out, I would have no control over that," Fullman said. "The editor is the final person, he's the one who knows what's going in the paper. I put in there what I want and he edits it as he sees fit. There could be negative information in there and it could have been pulled by the editor."

Have there been reported cases like that?

"I have no way of knowing," Fullman said. "How would I know?"

Fullman said he has never had a personal experience with an editor cutting anything negative from his work, but then reversed himself by saying he did know of SATW members complaining to the society's ethics committee of such practices. How many?

"I would say as needed," he said.

It seems to me that instead of trying to blame editors for the problem, the SATW should be doing more to police the ranks. The organization began with a noble purpose and has a fine code of ethics, but it doesn't seem to be doing all it can to enforce it.

I'm calling on the SATW to do more to enforce its original mission, which is to raise the standards of the profession. It's a good organization, which seems to have the resources to do more: Its accepted, active members pay $250 application fees and other members, seniors and associates, pay annual dues ranging from $100 to $250.

Why not hire a fact checker, like more and more media organizations are doing these days? Why not an ombudsman? Why not an investigator to look into the business relationships travel writers may have with those they are writing about?

The state of travel writing is in a sorry mess these days, and the SATW should take a leading role in cleaning it up.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Inaccurate Reviews...

    Glen Erickson wrote on: May 25, 2005

    On July 5, 2004, I played a new golf course called Dakota Dunes in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
    Upon arrival, I received terrible service and that all-too-familiar golf professional arrogance. I wrote a review and included the information about the terrible service.
    Well, the golf professionals in the area, many of whom I have known for years, were absolutely livid, which has certainly affected the manner in which I am received in the area now.
    For what it's worth, I did not call ahead and "let the pro know" I was coming, I paid the full green fee (which is not an expense I am reimbursed for by anyone), and I shot 76 from the tips on a course I'd never seen.
    I felt my concerns were legit, I wrote and published them, and have since been treated like a pariah by many of these clowns.
    But I am comfortable in being honest. Basically, the entire situation has really affected my opinion of the credibility of many golf professionals. They seem happy to give it away for free to their buddies or their shills, but few have the balls to address concerns regarding course conditions or staff deportment.
    I can understand how some writers bail out on the negatives. Too bad they have so little respect for their own credibility. It's amazing what some of these cranks will do for "free stuff".


  • No one cares

    Bob wrote on: May 25, 2005

    This is boring. Write about golf. And don't tell me about your 25-handicap. I'm not interested in you. I want to know what's interesting about the golf course and the location.


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