As Jorja previously stated in her post about Ethics in Travel Journalism, sponsored content is one form of writing that is contentious in travel journalism circles. The lines between PR and journalism are constantly blurring because of lack of disclosure. Organisations such as Lonely Planet strive for sponsor-free writing, leading to an authentic and credible review of travel sites, tourist places and other things related to travel. The internet, however, has made it easier for anyone to post content, from anywhere – making it harder sometimes to track down the source of information.
Let’s be honest – travel journalism is an expensive medium. The costs of flights, accommodation, tickets and other various expenses can be out of budget for the majority of journalists. To counter this, publishing houses allow a budget allocated to the journalist. T his is “common and accepted practice” by the Australian Society of Travel Writers. However, getting kickbacks for comments, discounts for a good review – another dubious methods – is where many ethical ambiguities start.
For example, in Japan, direct flights from Brisbane Airport cost $936 return. For accommodation, a three-star business hotel in Tokyo can cost up to US$200 a night according to website Price of Travel. To stimulate content, the travel industry often supports travel journalists by providing complimentary travel in exchange for coverage. If these were paid for by a travel company – how credible is the review? If the service was bad, it should be stated. Paying for writing, in my opinion, is akin to bribery. It’s a crime – and so is forging a good review in travel journalism.
Ethical standards are there for travel journalists to ensure the integrity of the work written remains. If interference persists between travel companies and journalists, travel journalism would be another form of glorified advertising for the airlines, hotels and other related travel countries. The MEAA Code of Ethics for Journalists has three explicit clauses in regards for “cash for comment” pieces:
- Clause 4 – Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.
- Clause 5 – Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism. Do not improperly use a journalistic position for personal gain.
- Clause 6 – Do not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.
The keywords in all three clauses are “accuracy”, “fairness” and “independence”. The accepted practice of allowing complimentary travel and expenses by travel companies directly impacts those three keywords. Again, these end up being PR reports – rather than legitimate forms of journalism.
Travel journalists must remain close to ethical standards set by organisations such as the MEAA and the Australian Society of Travel Writers. There are alternate methods to achieving this without resorting to accepting free gifts from travel companies, and undermining accuracy, fairness and independence.