Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Media

April 23, 2008

Do Travel Writers Cut Corners?

A recent tell-all from a former guidebook writer reveals a myriad of potentially dubious journalistic practices. Do travel writers really engage in these actions? If they do, can we blame them?

Adam Conner-Simons

Recent controversies in journalistic ethics have typically revolved around major news organizations whose reporters take one too many creative liberties: Jayson Blair pretending to interview soldiers; Stephen Glass inventing entire companies at his leisure; and Bill O'Reilly simply opening his mouth to speak. The potentially deceptive practices of more niche-minded fields of journalism are rarely explored, but the issue has surfaced recently with the publication of Thomas Kohnstamm's Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?. The book outlines the former guidebook writer's experiences in the industry, from engaging in steamy trysts with Brazilian waitresses to peddling Ecstasy in order to make ends meet.

"A guidebook writer who does accept freebies will definitely write favorably about those supplying the favors."—Travel writer David Stanley

Among journalists, perhaps his most contentious statements concern supposed corner-cutting practices by guidebook writers. In an interview with Australia's Daily Telegraph, the author admitted to: occasional borrowing of second-hand information rather than doing in-country research himself; and accepting complimentary accommodations on his travels. His claims have provoked intense debate in travel-writing circles, with responses ranging from simple outrage to accusations that he says such controversial things in a cynical effort to boost book sales.

Kohnstamm illuminates the harsh reality that guidebook writers simply do not have the time to visit every single institution they review. "It's tough for a writer to actually sample the dinner menus at 200 restaurants in LA for a travel guide," says travel writer Chuck Thompson,
who has his own provocative tell-all, Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer. "A lot of it is guesswork, approximation, and culling your knowledge from sources that were previously published."

Writers' alternative sources run the gamut from tourism brochures to online message boards. Kohnstamm, for example, got information about Colombia from a woman he was dating who worked at that country's consulate in San Francisco. Thompson says that many writers work from past years' guidebooks, which at its worst creates a "telephone game" effect in which current reviews ultimately serve as re-worded, out-of-date versions of their previous incarnations.

Many writers also incorporate information provided by the institutions they're covering. For data such as hours and availability, such correspondence is understandable. According to Scott Doggett, a travel writer for the Los Angeles Times* freelance writer who has written guidebooks for Lonely Planet, hotel owners increasingly receive emails from guidebook writers asking them to contribute blurbs about their own facilities—and then find that their "reviews" appear in the guidebooks, word-for-word. Many reporters Gelf interviewed dispute the frequency of the practice, though, arguing that a writer caught doing such things likely would be fired.

Guidebooks' limitations stem from the travel-book industry's financial insufficiency. While travel magazines typically pay a $1 a word, Thompson says that guidebook writers often are paid as little as 15 cents a word. "The pay is so low that you're either going to do a crappy job, because you're not being paid enough, or you are going to finance most of the costs out of your savings," says Doggett, speaking not of his personal experience with Lonely Planet, which he says has been good, but of his knowledge of the industry.*

Lonely Planet

One of many Lonely Planet books that Kohnstamm contributed to.

One particularly controversial way that travel writers avoid digging into their bank accounts is to accept—or even actively pursue—"freebies." Writers sometimes contact hotels, restaurants, and airlines, revealing that they are travel writers and trying to get free or discounted accommodations. Most guidebook companies offer purposefully vague disclaimers about freebies, essentially instituting "don't ask, don't tell" policies that allow for deals, provided that locations know that they are not guaranteed inclusion or favorable coverage—an arrangement that, author David Stanley points outs, conveniently ignores the reality that "a guidebook writer who does accept freebies will definitely write favorably about those supplying the favors." Even if such feelers don't reap discounts, writers who reveal their identity may get royal treatment from an establishment looking for positive reviews.

What has gotten overlooked in the controversy surrounding Kohnstamm's book, several writers say, is the extent to which the media has grossly simplified the story, particularly after the author's original interview with the Daily Telegraph. "The journalist picked out the most ridiculous, juicy things he said, and left everything else aside," says travel writer Zora O'Neill. In subsequent interviews Kohnstamm has downplayed many of the more salacious statements cherry-picked from the book: For instance, the claim that Kohnstamm wrote a guide to Colombia without visiting it was misleading, since, as both Lonely Planet and the author himself have said, he was assigned to discuss the country's history and culture and did not have to do any on-the-ground reporting.

Journalists are keen to point out that even Kohnstamm's more mundane missteps are not representative of typical industry practices. "There are many writers who refuse to cut corners and would never dream of relying entirely on tourist brochures and the internet," says guidebook writer Jan Dodd. Thompson agrees: "There is honest, on-the-ground reporting going on. It's not all rehashing."

"Guidebook editors need to make it clear what they expect from their writers."—travel writer Jan Dodd
Despite the book's numerous half-truths and exaggerations, most writers admit that the system needs improving, and admit that they themselves are largely to blame. "I think writers bear some responsibility to either do the work properly or to ask for more money so that they can," Dodd says. Thompson offers a simple bit of advice for fellow writers: "If you don't think you can meet the professional demands of an assignment, don't take the assignment. And if you do take it, do the work like a pro and shut up about it."

That's easier said then done for many, however. Writers suggest that readers take note of the inherent troubles of the industry. "They need to be slightly more critical," says O'Neill. "They should realize that not every recommendation comes from someone having a three-course meal." Increased pay isn't a likely fix. Dodd laments the fact that so few guidebook companies offer training or guidance on the profession's ethical dilemmas, and says that they could do more "by treating writers professionally and making it clear what is expected of them."

Despite the bad press Kohnstamm's book has created for guidebook writers, the hope for many of them is that the coverage will stimulate dialogue on the industry's difficulties. "It's kind of nice that Thomas' books has shed a little light on the process," O'Neill says. "Leaving aside all the desperately dumb things he does, he's just pointing out that guidebooks are not perfect."

Correction: Scott Doggett no longer writes for the Los Angeles Times, though this article originally and incorrectly said he did. Also, his comment about travel writing—"the pay is so low that you're either going to do a crappy job, because you're not being paid enough, or you are going to finance most of the costs out of your savings"—refers not to his personal experience but to his knowledge of the industry. The article has been updated to clarify what he meant.

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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