Travel Bloggers Pledge - Towards a New Ethics in Travel Writing / by Amy Thibodeau

Wilsons Promontory
Wilsons Promontory

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This Stuff Matters

Why do so many of us feel compelled to travel? Why do we save up for months, years even, and forgo other luxuries like bigger houses and nicer cars in order to feed our compulsion to experience the world first-hand? My fiancee and I have been traveling non-stop since May 1st. We no longer have a home to go back to and apart from a few precious things that were stored with his mother, we own no more than we can carry in two suitcases. Sometimes we feel a bit rootless, but mostly we feel exhilarated and incredibly lucky to be living this life style. The other day, we were watching wild penguins come in to feed their babies on Phillip Island on the Southern tip of Australia and as we pulled our hoods up to keep out the cold Antarctic wind, I think we were both dumbstruck by where we were and what we were experiencing.

After spending a wonderful weekend watching wild penguins and other Australian animals on a nature preserve, it was really reinforced to me that for those of us who chose to live a nomadic existence, traveling is more than a just a bit of fun. We are in the unique position of seeing the world with unfiltered lenses; hopefully this also compels us to protect it and if we're lucky enough to have a platform, to share these experiences with others so that they also feel compelled to protect and champion the diversity of the earth.

I think that's why this made me particularly angry. Six travel bloggers were treated to a weekend to Navarre Beach, Florida by the Santa Rosa County Tourism Development Council. Actually, it was funded by British Petroleum (BP). The trip was by no means an opportunity for bloggers to go rogue and investigate the realities in the Gulf following the BP oil spill but rather was a carefully orchestrated trip where bloggers were shuffled to and from places deemed tourist-ready including: the Navarre Fishing Pier, the Gulf Breeze Zoo, Hidden Creek Golf Club and the Rufus Hayes Training Stables ranch in Milton.

I have no idea how the bloggers were selected, but I suspect it had something to do with their willingness to color between the lines, using only the approved shades: "All of the reporters who are visiting have agreed to write something about the area. Although the trip is paid for by BP and is intended to combat the misconceptions created by the spill, Wilkes said she doesn't think oil will be a big part of the tour." Well, no surprises there.

Unsurprisingly, even as they were still concluding their weekend, some bloggers were already releasing statements about the nature of the devastation in the Gulf and their statements stink of the worst kind of biased reporting:

"What the national media has been saying is totally untrue, for the most part, and blown totally out of proportion," Stern, Editor of Justsaygo.com said. "What they're going to get from me is the truth. You can come down here, and you're not going to get oil on your feet or tar balls on your shoes. ... I haven't seen anything in the sand other than sand, and I've been swimming in the water."

and

"I knew the spill was kind of blown up. I had done many articles when this happened. The way it was first covered in the national media, you honestly thought, 'It's gone,' but once I did a little research and calling, I felt like it is important to let people know everything is good to go," says Apryl Thomas, a freelance writer who occasionally blogs for Southern Hospitality.

The Reality at the Gulf

I don't think that we fully understand the damage or the legacy of the BP Gulf Spill and I also don't believe that there is a single reality that we can stamp on top of that region and say with authority, "this is the way thing are"; different areas will have suffered different repercussions and will have varying recovery times, if recovery is even entirely possible where some of the damage to wildlife is concerned. That anyone would take an all-expenses-paid-by-BP weekend trip, where all of the activities and locations have been prearranged by a tourism authority, and definitively declare that the coverage about the oil spill damage was and is an over reaction should revoke any credibility that site or blogger may have had. Basically, for a weekend in a nice hotel and some free meals, they have sold themselves out along with all of the people and ecosystems who continue to suffer damage by the oil spill.

I understand that part of recovery for the Gulf is about revitalizing the tourism industry. But that will never be accomplished through this kind of biased reporting.

The above video is another example of how, throughout this crises, journalists have faced barriers and restricted access when trying to actually report on the state of the sand, the water and the wildlife at the Gulf. How are we to really understand the full impact of the spill when coverage fluctuates between journalists who are not able to properly investigate the situation and sell-out bloggers who are only too willing to take a free BP weekend in exchange for rubber-stamping the region as 'open for business'.

Why This Bothers Me So Much

Apart from the irreparable damage to a delicate ecosystem and the economic havoc it's unleashed on a region of people who have already had their share of natural disasters to deal with recently, I am angry that anyone who considers themselves a passionate traveller is willing to help BP misuse social media to try to make everyone think that their giant disaster wasn't such a big deal after all. I'm sad that these writers were bought and sold so cheaply and I'm upset that their loss of credibility means that those of us who try to write honestly about the world might be lumped into the same category.

The travel writing gig is not lucrative and of course people often receive freebies - many writers could not afford to eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels they review if they had to pay for them. The difference, for me anyway, is that I would never accept a freebie in exchange for a positive review - I would never guarantee that my reaction would be anything other than honest. I would also make it clear that full disclosure would be required. Because the money for this trip was filtered by BP through a tourism body, it allowed the writers to knowingly not disclose that they were essentially being paid by BP to write a fluff piece. It's dishonest and quite frankly, a little evil given the particular circumstances surrounding this tragic disaster, which, by the way, has been confirmed as "the largest accidental release of oil in the world's history" with 4.1 million barrels of oil released into the gulf over nearly 90 days. (source)

And to BP: haven't you learned anything about public relations from this whole sordid mess? Instead of taking responsibility and embarking on a course of action to deal with the real, long-term impact of their spill, since the beginning, BP continue to try to deny that things are as bad as they seem. Thank goodness for the journalists, bloggers and everyday people of the Gulf region who continue to tell their stories and for social media platforms that allow them to do it.

Travel Bloggers Pledge

Can we start a movement? Something that clearly distinguishes those of us who believe we owe it to ourselves, our readers and this wonderful world to be honest about our experiences?

I pledge:

  1. To disclose the source of any freebies or payments I receive in return for reviews.
  2. To express my honest opinion about all products, services and experiences on my website.
  3. To clearly label any advertorial content on my website so that it's clear to my readers what is and is not advertising.
  4. To always aim to be transparent with my readers.
  5. To build my brand and online business without doing evil, underhanded things.

Are you with me? I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments and by all means - if you're feeling impassioned and want to join me in this, please feel free to do so in the comments section below. If you make the pledge on your own website, please send me the URL so that I can link to it here. I've also created a badge, which I've displayed in my sidebar and if you're so inclined, here's the code to post it on your own website:

Travel Bloggers Pledge
Travel Bloggers Pledge

<a href="http://atrampabroad.com/travel-bloggers-pledge#Pledge" title="Travel Bloggers Pledge"><img src="http://i937.photobucket.com/albums/ad216/atrampabroad/pledge.jpg" border="0" alt="Travel Bloggers Pledge" /></a>

Maybe I'm being naive to think that people care about this stuff. But the more I travel, the more I realize how delicate the world is. I am so grateful and I feel like honesty and transparency is the least that I can offer back in return for so much.

Top Photo: Me at Wilsons Prom. Australia by Dan Zambonini Thumbnail in Pledge Button: Sunset Over Earth by Nasa's Marshall Space Flight Centre