Can you trust a travel writer?

By | June 1st, 1998

Travelers like a sure thing. Whether it’s the certainty that their plane will fly or knowing their rental car is properly maintained, people want to deal with someone they trust.

So why do we settle for “iffy” when it comes to information? Why do we take advice on where to go and how to get there from writers who are being subsidized by the travel industry?

Airlines, hotels, cruise lines, restaurants and tourist authorities routinely offer journalists free tickets, rooms or meals in exchange for a favorable mention. Many staff reporters justify taking the freebies because their publications don’t have the budget to cover travel. Lots of freelance writers accept the perks, too, because they couldn’t afford to travel otherwise.

But when trips are on the house, even the best journalists find it difficult to offer an objective report. And even if they accurately describe what they see, their experience may not be all that authentic, since they’re often getting red-carpet treatment from hotels, restaurants and travel bureaus seeking good coverage.

Still, a surprising number of magazines and newspapers accept these favors. (This columnist doesn’t write stories based on press trips.)

The New York Times has one of the strictest no-freebie policies. “Free trips or discounts can affect our coverage, and we don’t want to be in a relationship like that with a commercial entity,” says travel editor Nancy Newhouse. “I would hope that readers will feel secure in knowing that our material is not subsidized and that they can trust our reporting and writing.”

Leslie A. Ward, travel editor for the Los Angeles Times, puts her paper’s equally prohibitive rules in writing. Reviews in her section typically state that staff reporters take trips anonymously and pay their own expenses. If the story is done under other conditions, the paper will note that.

“A story that’s written based on a press trip doesn’t quite have the credibility of one that isn’t,” she says. “A free trip colors the writer’s experience. We want the story to reflect the kind of trip a reader would take. And the more someone else pays for your trip, the less authentic it is.”

Tainted reports don’t become evident until you take a trip that doesn’t live up to the billing it got in the newspaper, Web site or guidebook.

For about two years, as an editor at a travel trade publication, I was part of the problem. I denied that freebies biased my reporting and effectively gave suppliers control of my content until the time I was dispatched on a press trip to review Sandals’ all-inclusive resort on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia in 1993.

On my return, I filed a story that praised the property for its amenities but also criticized it for the “bugs,” which included not only “black inch-long crickets” roaming the halls but broken hair dryers and frequent power outages.

Sandals retaliated immediately. Its owner, Butch Stewart, fired off an angry letter to my publisher, saying, “this idiot obviously does not know what he is looking at.” Then he canceled all of his ads, an account worth nearly $1 million a year.

I phoned Stewart, of course. He was livid; he suggested I had violated the partnership between Sandals and my publication. The implication was inescapable-I’d bitten the hand that fed me. I’d taken a free trip and then trashed my host.

Instead of standing by my story, the magazine backpedaled furiously. It sent another reporter to St. Lucia to “correct” to problem. (The result: a tame follow-up article that said the troubles, if any, were being fixed.) Soon after that, it honored Stewart with a person-of-the-year award, presumably to lure his advertising dollars back.

(Sandals, by the way, continues to offer all-expenses-paid press trips to reporters, according to a resort spokeswoman. “We show writers the product and we expect them to cover it fairly,” she says.)

Granted, this was an extreme case. But I later learned that other publications, big and small, face similar pressures. “Do we expect a writer to mention us in an article if we’ve given him a free ticket?” says one former airline public relations official. “Of course we do. Do we expect it to be positive? Yes, that’s implied, too.”

Travel writers know that’s the way the game is played. They have to strike a delicate balance between payback and being professional. “Yes, there’s a debt there,” agrees Cynthia Boal Janssens, president of the Society of American Travel Writers, which represents about 650 editorial members. “If I accept a trip that’s extremely valuable, I think it’s only professional courtesy to write about it.”

But she says it’s also her professional duty to make the story fair and accurate. “I’m not about to compromise my reputation as a journalist.”

Sadly, not all reporters feel that way. Some of her peers eagerly accept the gratis trips and glowingly endorse any product as long as it is free. Which is what makes the press trip scheme so harmful to you, the traveler. You never know when you’re being fed a line.