[Many thanks to Suzie Rodriguez for writing all of this piece except Edward Hasbrouck’s section, which I wrote. Resources and links provided by the speakers are at the bottom of the post.
April Orcutt, BATW Website Editor]
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Ethics & Etiquette panel

BATW's Ethics & Etiquette panel: (from left) Edward Hasbrouck, David Page, Catherine Boire, Tom Wilmer and Erin Van Reenen (host) (photo © John Montgomery)

BATW members were treated to a lively presentation on Saturday, June 19, at the Noe Valley branch of the San Francisco Public Library. The topic: The Ethics & Etiquette of Travel Writing—that is, an examination of what’s involved from an ethical standpoint when it comes to travel-writer comps, press trips, and freebies. The panel was conceived, coordinated and moderated by BATW Program Committee member Erin Van Rheenen.

Although billed as a discussion, the event was a bit more idiosyncratic. Each of the four panelists — David Page, Edward Hasbrouck, Catherine Boire and Tom Wilmer — spoke about the “Ethics & Etiquette” from a personal standpoint. Questions were taken from the audience.

Van Rheenen introduced the program by reading an excerpt from a piece Georgia Hesse wrote for the occasion. Hesse, founder of the San Francisco Examiner’s Travel section and an internationally-recognized travel writer/editor, offered a historical perspective on ethical issues involving press trips.

Edward Hasbrouck, who is on the board of the National Writers’ Union and who has been involved in formal discussions on this topic, set up the purpose of the meeting.  He pointed out that the reason issues about ethics and gift-disclosure have come up is that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is supposed to protect consumers, has created new guidelines for openness regarding writers’ acceptance of freebies, discounts, etc.  He pointed out that the “FTC was gutted during the Reagan Admnistration” and that an overhaul of out-of-date regulations (or lack thereof) is long overdue.  New appointees on the FTC are working to encourage “truth in advertising” – and truth about hidden advertising.

In particular, the rapid expansion of the blogging world has brought about concerns regarding payola, which is defined by dictionary.com as “a secret or private payment in return for the promotion of a product, service, etc., through the abuse of one’s position, influence, or facilities.”

In October, 2009, the FTC announced its truth-in-(hidden)-advertising guidelines.  However, the FTC was mainly talking about current laws and trying to “scare people straight” regarding disclosure of who gave them what in exchange for positive mention in a story.  Edward pointed out that the FTC is taking a good approach in saying, “Get your act together on your own initiative.”

The original focus of the FTC’s new approach was not, Edward said, travel writers, but now it is trying to straighten out that area, too.  Two areas of importance are (1) endorsement (the writer telling the reader to do or buy something) and (2) disclosure of material connections that the reader would not expect or know about.

Edward said travel writers have two choices for dealing with these issues – that is, two questions to ask themselves:

1.     “What do I have to do to comply with the guidelines?”

His initial answer was: almost nothing.  The FTC is directing its ire primarily at advertisers.  The FTC wants the sponsor to tell the writer to tell the reader that he/she was sponsored (that is, given a comp, media-rate discount, press trip, etc.).  Edward thinks this is the wrong approach and suggests instead that writers answer his second question:

2.    “What is driving these regulation changes?  Are these valid concerns?”

The concerns relate to shilling – that is, to a writer presenting a company’s point-of-view in exchange for some kind of compensation but that writer not disclosing to the reader that she/he received that compensation.  In the case of print writers, the writer usually deals with an editor and/or publisher so there can be some distance and a filter between the writer and the final published story.  The problem is bigger regarding bloggers because bloggers are not only the writers on their own sites, they are also the publishers of their own site and, therefore, are also the sites’ advertising salespersons.  That means there is no distance between the writer and the generator of website revenue.  Therefore a blog can easily and secretly become an “infomercial” (“informative” commercial) or an “advertorial” (advertising masquerading as an editorial).

Writers will win greater credibility, Edward said, if they are honest and up-front with their readers – that is, if they disclose to readers all discounts, gifts, comps, freebies, etc., that they receive relating to their articles.

This honesty has to come from publicists and marketers as well as writers, Edward said.  All subsidies (including media rates that are below fair-market value) as well as freebies should be disclosed.  Readers cannot detect payola on their own, and they are upset if they discover they’ve been duped.  In order to further their own careers, writers need to do all they can to maintain their credibility with readers and that means disclosing all gifts.

(For more information, links that Edward provided are at the bottom of this post and at http://hasbrouck.org/blog/archives/001877.html.)

David Page’s credits include the Discovery Channel, Men’s Journal, and the New York Times. He talked about conflicting ethical views within travel journalism. The official policy at the New York Times is to never accept a story by anyone who has been on a press trip at any time (read this section of the NYT contract). However, many other publications have no policy regarding press trips. [Suzie notes that many BATW members have been on press trips with editors from major publications.]

Page noted that it’s almost impossible to write a guidebook without taking at least an occasional freebie. When writing Yosemite & the Southern Sierra Nevada: A Complete Guide (Countryman Press), he found the “no freebie” thing easy to do with hole-in-the-wall lodgings and inexpensive eateries; impossible to do, on his budget, when matters went upscale. So what does a writer do? As he wrote in an article entitled “Do Freebies Undermine Honesty in Travel Writing,” “Do you just wander around the hallways of the five-star hotel and maybe sit on the bed? …Or—what the hell, in the interest of actual experiential travel—do you accept a free night?”

Of course you do. Realizing that “my responsibility is to the story and reader,” Page wrote honestly…and the guidebook ended up winning a 2009 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award.

Throughout his presentation Page emphasized that honesty in writing—as opposed to offering up boiler-plate or fluff—is what wins readers over. And while honesty may at times be difficult for hotel, restaurant, and attraction owners to swallow, in the end most will appreciate being shown the error of their ways. It was thus fitting that Page ended his presentation with these simple words addressed to travel journalists and readers alike: “Write like a shill, they’re gone. Write honestly, they stay.”

[You’ll find a few links on the topic of travel-writer ethics recommended by David Page at the bottom of this post.]

BATW Associate member Catherine Boire spoke offered a perspective from “the other side.” Catherine joined BATW in 1997, shortly after moving to the Bay Area. That same year she put together BATW’s first-ever press trip. By coincidence the destination—the Napa Valley town of Calistoga—had never before hosted a press trip. While BATW members responded with enthusiasm to the idea of a visit to Calistoga (go figure!), the town’s restaurant, hotel, and attraction owners were befuddled by the new idea of giving away free lodging, meals, etc. Would it really be worth it? Catherine convinced them to take a chance, assuring them that good publicity would result. As it turned out, the trip was a success on all fronts. Everyone had a great time, no embarrassing gaffes occurred, and Catherine received many clips from the attendees.

But then comes the flip side. Not long ago a writer (not a BATW member) asked Catherine to get him a three-day comp at a high-end “camp” in the Sierra, saying that the story would appear in a major publication. This amp does not ordinarily give comps—open only three months each year, the camp has an extremely narrow window in which to make a profit. But in the end Catherine did mange to wrest permission for the three-night comp. The result? The writer never filed the story, and Catherine was left to deal with an extremely disgruntled camp manager.

Nonetheless, Catherine believes that press trips and comps are important, allowing journalists a way to visit an area or property. She stressed that it’s important to send clips of articles written from press trips to the PR consultant (she mentioned her delight when Don & Ann Jackson recently sent her a clip that—though written this year—resulted from a press trip of 15 years ago). Another tip: you’ll have more success if you make requests for help, comps, etc., through the PR consultant rather than going directly to a hotel or other manager.

BATW Board member Tom Wilmer has been on so many press trips in 25+ years as a travel writer that he long ago lost count. A bit of a raconteur, he made it clear that, in his view, press trips are vital to a hard-working travel writer because they provide opportunity, insight, ideas, knowledge and much more. As one example: Wilmer won a national Australian writing award for an article that resulted from a press trip.

But there can be a dark side, Wilmer points out, when writers feel that they must produce “glowing” or “fluffy” articles to repay a sponsor’s largesse. “If you feel beholden—if you feel as if you’re being a whore—get over it,” he said. “And get over it quick. You have a far bigger responsibility to your reader. And if the PR people have a problem? Well, too bad!”

Suzie Rodriguez
(covering introduction, David Page, Catherine Boire and Tom Wilmer)
April Orcutt
BATW Website Editor
(covering Edward Hasbrouck)

Resources from David Page:


A relevant section of the NYT contract: http://www.nytco.com/press/ethics.html#C

Gawker publishes a reminder memo from NYT (March 2010):

David Foster Wallace’s “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise”:

Tom Gates’ Notes from Grand Hotel Del Mar (Matador):


Resources from Edward Hasbrouck:

FTC guidelines on endorsements, testimonials, and advertising (FTC press release, 5 October 2009):

FTC guidelines (text of the guidelines)

FTC guidelines (complete Federal Register notice with additional FTC commentary and discussion)

Edward Hasbrouck’s initial analysis and commentary on the FTC guidelines (23 October 2009)

Edward Hasbrouck’s  follow-up commentary and links to responses to the FTC guidelines (12 November 2009)

Analysis of first report of FTC investigation under the new guidelines (by Susan Getgood, co-founder of “Blog With Integrity” and author of the forthcoming Professional Blogging for Dummies book, for which she interviewed me as one of her case studies)

Twitter hashtag for discussion of travel writing ethics: #twethics

Blog With Integrity (Twitter @BlogIntegrity)

Travel Bloggers Exchange (webcast panels including Mary Engle of the FTC and Susan Getgood of BlogWithIntegrity on “Travel Writing Ethics – Freebies and Disclosures”, Sunday, 27 June 2010, 8-8:45 a.m. PDT; Twitter #tbex10)

The Travel Bloggers Show (sponsored by the American Society of Travel Agents in conjunction with the ASTA trade show for travel agents and travel suppliers, Orlando, FL, September 11-14 2010; workshops with Edward Hasbrouck for travel bloggers on “Working with travel marketers and p.r. agencies” and for travel agencies, suppliers, and p.r. agencies on “How to work with travel bloggers”; Twitter @trvlbloggershow)

Edward Hasbrouck’s Disclosures & Disclaimers page

Edward Hasbrouck’s How to Pitch Me page