Charlesrown, the suns truck capital of tiny, slumbering Nevis… is readying, ever so slowly, for another day in paradise. Paradise, of course, is a relative term but for most North Americans it conjures up visions of turquoise seas, palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze and seamless blue skies shimmering in the heat of a steady, tropic sun. Nevis, situated in the Leeward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean, is blessed with all that”
This glowing feature appeared on page one of The Toronto Star’s travel section last October 17. A week later, The Toronto Sun carried an equally flattering report on Les Trois Vallees, France, which, the story said, offers “the best skiing in the world.” The piece continued: “It’s a skier’s dream come true. Limitless hills and terrific off-piste challenges for the brazen hearted. Arrive at the lift when it first opens. Ski until it closes. Make every run different. There are still miles of hills left untouched and unseen.”
In both instances, the writers had been the guests of companies with a vested interest in positive coverage, although the stories didn’t mention this. Neither case is unusual; among travel writers, freebies are as commonplace as boarding passes. As Percy Rowe, travel writer with The Toronto Sun, says, “It applies to 99 per cent of [travel] publications in the world.” It is this practice that lies at the root of the air-brushed quality of most newspaper and magazine travel reporting.
A particularly vociferous critic of freebies is Walter Stewart, who occupies the Max Bell Chair in Journalism at the University of Regina. Suppose, he suggests, a writer were researching a profile of the Reichmann brothers. He could spend hundreds of dollars on transportation, hotels and meals. If the Reichmanns picked up the tab, would the story have any credibility? “Not unless you’re a moral pygmy,” is Stewart’s answer.
There’s nothing new about the freebie question. In 1976, Gerry McAuliffe, now a reporter with CBC Radio, filed a formal complaint with the Ontario Press Council regarding an article published by a number of Southam newspapers, including The Spectator in Hamilton, where McAuliffe worked as a reporter at the time.
The story, written by the late Frank Scholes, then travel editor for Southam Newspaper Group, was an account of a 20-day trip around the world. McAuliffe charged that the piece was unfair because it failed to point out that Scholes had traveled for free, that he had received treatment superior to what the average reader could expect, and that the piece had not mentioned any prices. While the council dismissed McAuliffe’s charges, in 1978 it issued a formal statement that said, in part: “All newspapers and news organizations should have firm general policies that they pay all costs of gathering news and other material for publication, and are opposed to accepting complimentary services or gifts. Whenever any significant free services have been used this should be indicated in the coverage.”
Ten years later, McAuliffe says, “I won the battle and lost the war.” Although his complaint forced editors to toughen their freebie policies for staffers, many newspapers haven’t extended these to freelancers, and few require that writers indicate whether they were on a flip. Of the 10 major Ontario daily news organizations surveyed for this story, all except The Toronto Sun forbid their staff writers to accept freebies. But only The Ottawa Citizen and the Kingston Whig-Standard extend this policy to freelance travel writers, and The Whig-Standard rarely buys freelance travel material anyway. The rest Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail, The Hamilton Spectator, The London Free Press, The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, the St. Catharines Standard and The Toronto Star-rely on freelance contributors for most of their travel stories, but do not ask these writers if they’ve accepted free services. “We wouldn’t knowingly accept something from somebody who had clearly been compromised,” says Ian Urquhart, the Star’s managing editor. But he admits that one could find travel stories printed in the Star that were the result of freebies. “I suppose you could accuse us of not being assiduous enough in seeing that we don’t [accept such stories].”
Publications frequently point to budget constraints when asked to explain their double-standard freebie policies. Yet, travel is big business and the Canadian media know it. According to Statistics Canada, during 1987 Canadians made almost 15 million visits longer than a day to countries around the world, and while there spent about $8.8 billion. Although the total revenues generated by travel advertising are unavailable, a quick look at an average travel section gives an idea of the money involved. For example, on February 20, more than two-thirds of the Star’s 24-page Saturday section was devoted to 142 ads; a full-page black-and-white ad costs about $20,000.
However, the big money hasn’t filtered down to the travel writers, who usually earn about $150 for a standard newspaper piece. While magazines such as the Globe’s Destinations and Toronto Life pay an average of $1,500 or more for a feature length piece, even that amount isn’t enough to cover expenses. Thus, freebies-treats forbidden at the city desk but embraced by the travel department.
McAuliffe believes that if a publication isn’t prepared to pay a writer’s way, it has at least a moral obligation to let readers know when a writer has been on a flip. “I’m not saying that makes it okay,” he says. “But readers have a right to know that whatever they’re reading is pure and clean. It gives them some understanding that the trip they’re reading about-the great raves-might be, in part, because of the contribution made by the people involved.” Stewart’s assessment is harsher. “The difference between a bribe which is paid in cash and a bribe which is paid in an airplane ticket is not discernible to me,” he says. “You’re providing a consumer service, and the reader has the right to believe that you’re providing it straight up. The issue is that journalists who allow themselves to take freebies are not real journalists. They’re the hookers of the trade.”
Glen Warner, a freelancer whose stories have appeared in Destinations and Moneywise, defends his and his colleagues’ virtue. “I don’t think any writer worth his salt is going to be compromised by a few nights’ worth of free hotels,” says Warner. “You tell it like it is.” The Sun’s travel editor, Jill Rigby, agrees. “There’s no bias in what we run,” she says. “There’s no feeling that we owe anything. If they don’t like what we run, that’s too bad.”
But not everyone is comfortable with this approach. One publication opposed to freebies is Latitudes, a two-year-old adventure-travel newspaper distributed free four times a year throughout Toronto.
“We’ve taken a strong policy against it,” says co-publisher Tom Scanlan. “I just don’t know how you can write an honest review when things are being offered to you free.” Media watchdog Barrie Zwicker is even more emphatic: “Only a psychopath has no feelings of guilt or obligation. Writers who believe they can’t be influenced are self-deluded or attempting to cover their ass.”
Air carriers and tourist boards often bring subtle-or not so subtle-expectations to their arrangements with travel writers. Takaish Nagaoka, a representative with the Japan National Tourist Organization, says he makes no specific demands of writers ”as long as they are going to write good things on Japanese tourism. I don’t want them to write about high prices in Japan, of course. If they’re going to do that, we just can’t help them.”
Chris Sochan, public relations officer with Lufthansa German Airlines, helpfully provides new writers with examples of how the company’s name can be seamlessly inserted into a story. Is the writer planning to attend a fashion show in Munich? Perhaps he might remark on the new uniforms worn by Lufthansa’s crew. A profile on the wine-producing vineyards of the Mosel Valley? A reference to the wine served on board Lufthansa jets might be appropriate. “The ideal thing is to get something in the story itself so that it fits in nicely,” says Sochan. “Some of them are very good at putting the name in, and it’s part of the story and you can’t take it out unless you take the whole paragraph out.”
Crediting a company that has provided free services is a touchy point with writers and editors. No one likes to be blatantlike nudity in the movies, it has to be part of the plot. Some editors sidestep the problem by giving a host company top billing in a how-to-get-there sidebar. Roberta Walker, editor of Real Travel, a year-old, Calgary-based magazine published quarterly, has another solution. She often asks the air carrier or tourist board involved to submit photographs, thus enabling her to identify the organization with the phrase “photo courtesy of.”
But Real Travel never explicitly indicates when a writer has traveled for free. Walker argues that such a disclaimer suggests a bias of its own, and undermines an objective account by signaling to the reader that the story may not be accurately reported.
Charles Oberdorf, senior editor at City and Country Home and an experienced travel writer, offers another popular defence of freebies. If travel writers must indicate when they’ve taken a freebie, he suggests, then so should the sports reporters and theatre critics who regulatly accept complimentary tickets. However, while sports reporters tell us when the home team was listless and nobody scored and theatre critics regularly skewer box office revenues with a well-turned savage phrase, most travel writing is relentlessly upbeat and positive: the beaches are white, the water turquoise and the locals invariably charming. “I really think a fault of the whole field of travel journalism is that it’s not critical enough,” says Percy Rowe. If stories mention anything negative, it’s usually minor irritants-long walks to the beach or leaky faucets.
Yet, there is a dark side to this tendency to ignore the unpleasant aspects of a destination: promoting travel in countries that have a terrible human rights record. Ronald Wright, a Port Hope-based freelancer and author of several travel books, points to Guatemala as an example: “I’m not saying I wouldn’t write about it. But if I did I’d make sure I mentioned there has been a lot of killing and exploitation. It would be unethical to promote it as a tourist locale full of color.” However, savvy writers know that pieces that might discourage potential travelers are rarely printed. As Jerry Tutunjian, until February editor of Leisure Ways, the Canadian Automobile Association’s travel magazine, says, “We wouldn’t waste our space by telling people, ‘Don’t go.’ “
Surely, though, identifying unpleasant destinations-the other pages of the newspapers tell us these exist-provides better service than a puff piece that slides past eyes glazed by one-too-many swaying palms. Limited space isn’t the main consideration here-it’s that the travel pages serve mainly the advertisers, whose dollars allow the travel pages to continue and who threaten to pull their ads if the stories-the annoying stuff between the ads -veer into unpleasant reality.
Many of those in travel journalism insist that, without freebies, the whole system would collapse-an argument reminiscent of the reasoning used to defend child labor and slavery. Perhaps the system deserves to die. Advertisers should learn to accept negative coverage and publishers must accept responsibility for the cost of gathering stories. And travel writers have to stop playing at being journalists.
Unfortunately, there are no signs that the rules will change. Helga Loverseed is chairman of the Canadian chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers. In her view, “We are not qualified, as travel journalists, to take a political or an economic stand. The bottom line is that travel articles are selling tools. They should make ~ people want to go to those places.”