Trusting what you read: does full disclosure matter?

Smoke and mirrors

Read an article in any travel-related publication (blog, magazine or newspaper) and it’s increasingly likely that the author has been hosted for their trip. In some cases this means that they travelled on a group press trip and had their itinerary pre-arranged by the local tourist office in collaboration with a PR agency. In other cases they may have let the PR agency or tourist office know of their intention to travel (whether for a commission or to write on their own blog) and as a result they received hosted stays in hotels, assistance with transport or a complimentary meal or two along the way.

Does it matter? Does anyone care on what basis the writer travelled and whether they had the minutiae of their trip taken care of? I say it can matter a great deal, and I’m trying to look at this here strictly from a reader’s perspective. Please feel free to chip in and tell me if you think I’m way off the mark.

Whose Opinions?

Firstly, the use of a disclaimer stating that ‘all opinions are my own’ or something similar is irrelevant. Whether I trust your opinion is for me, the reader, to decide. It’s rather like a politician stating that a large donation from a private company to his party fund had no bearing on his decision to obstruct legislation that would be harmful to his donor.  Far better to stick to the facts and make them unambiguous. “I was hosted by the xxxx Tourist Board” is enough – the reader can then decide how impartial they consider your words to be.

Secondly, the importance of a disclaimer depends very much on the nature of the article. If, for example, the author is telling an account of their meeting with a local fisherman who recalls stories of how the village survived the war or how the catches at sea have changed over the years, I won’t care less if the writer stayed in a 5 star hotel with a private jacuzzi. If on the other hand they are describing how amazing a hotel is or how delicious a meal has been, I need to know from the outset whether they have paid for this themselves or whether they have been hosted.

Hosted reports

I am certainly not saying that reports from hosted trips cannot be trusted. Writers and bloggers are rarely paid enough to afford to enjoy these luxuries from their own pocket and hosted trips are the only way in which many areas will come to our attention. I will however process the information in the article very differently depending on the author’s travel arrangements. In a hosted report I’m looking more for factual information – what facilities were in the ‘awesome’ hotel? What about the pool was so ‘amazing’? Essentially what I want to know is whether that ‘sublime’ cocktail you had while watching the sunset from the rooftop terrace would be just as sublime when I’m paying $20 for it and fighting for a seat with dozens of other customers.

And when people write about other services (travel insurance, luggage, rail passes) it is absolutely critical that I as a reader am made fully aware of the relationship between the author and the product. To be honest it’s usually obvious, so the check for proper disclosure is more to make a personal assessment on the credibility of the article I’m about to read. Make your relationship clear from the start and I’m more likely to read on.

Knowing your readers

Those who say “our readers know and trust us” presumably don’t take into account the proportion of visitors they get from Google searches. On this site that’s around 70% of traffic although I know this number varies a lot between sites. How can I claim any knowledge of my readers when most arrive straight on a blog post and neither know nor care who I am and what I do?

This is not an attempt to make this an issue of ethics; I’m certainly not qualified to speak with any sort of moral authority in that regard. But as a reader, the relationship between the person who is giving me information and the product or service that they are describing is critical. Those who do the hard work of creating content for others to enjoy need to keep me (and I suspect many others) on their side by making that relationship absolutely clear.

(Should I mention that the photo above was taken on a hosted press trip? Probably not)

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

16 Responses to “Trusting what you read: does full disclosure matter?”

  1. Totally agree, it’s essential that the writer clearly state if and how he/she has been hosted, in order for the reader to factor that into the equation – a statement such as “All opinions are my own” is not enough.

    Bloggers may sometimes feel nervous about acknowledging this, but they shouldn’t, for two reasons.

    Firstly, good PR people know that good travel writers will be writing honestly about their experiences, which may include negative coverage. They’ll present their destination as positively as possible, but if they’re professional they’ll expect that the writer will be objective, and accept they can’t control that.

    Secondly, your readers can nearly always tell when you’ve been hosted but are not revealing that fact. It’s not a good look.

    All we travel writers (for blogs, newspapers, whatever) should commit to being more confident and forthright in both our revelation of being hosted (which after all, is just being given access to a product so we can research it), and in describing the places we visit in this way. It does strike the right note with the readers.

    Now Andy, one question – where the hell is that fascinating image from?

    June 14, 2012 at 3:50 pm
    • Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw

      June 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm
      • Abi #

        Thought so! Back to write a very intelligent response later…but I’m a bit slow at typing :)

        June 30, 2012 at 3:13 am
  2. I write in the first paragraph of my hotel/restaurant reviews, if I stayed/ate on a complimentary basis. This allows reader to factor this into my review. I’ve observed that this information is often at the bottom of reviews, I prefer to have it in a more obvious position.

    June 14, 2012 at 4:01 pm
  3. Thank you for reminding us how much we need an honest conversation about media and tourism.

    Personally, I am concerned more by the fact that PR folks and enterprises are seeking to commodify the tourism experience instead of exploring the interactions with locals. The result: an increasingly boring series of been there, done that type of feature. If I want ratings, I’d rather visit TripAdvisor. If I want something in depth, I want to read a travel wiki in which the editing process is clearly visible in the history.

    June 14, 2012 at 4:13 pm
  4. Excellent points, Andy.

    It made me laugh when you pointed out at the irrelevance of ‘all opinions are my own’. I am one of the many using the formula and never liked it. I copied it from a great travel blogger, thinking that if someone much more successful was mentioning it that should be a good thing. I feel relieved now that I’ve read your article and will surely drop it in the future.

    As for hosted trips, I confess that while I surely appreciate staying in a luxury hotel or having an exquisite meal in a great restaurant, I’m not always sure about what’s the best story-angle to both valorize the experience and catch the interest of readers.

    From a reader perspective, I know for example that I don’t enjoy articles that are a sort of chronicle of the trip. What interests me is the unexpected.

    Writing about a hotel or a restaurant or a tour within a broader perspective is probably the most difficult thing. At least to me.

    June 14, 2012 at 4:41 pm
    • Abi #

      I can see where you’re both coming from with the “all opinions my own” thing…but sometimes people DO accept various forms of limitations. Therefore, they are not free to write what they like. Certainly, many print publications state in their contracts that anything negative won’t be published. That’s why I often add the phrase in – to say that I haven’t agreed to conditions like that. Various HR departments of major broadcasting companies also confirm that their writers, newsreaders, photographers and so on are not free to express their own opinions. If they do, they risk the sack.

      June 30, 2012 at 3:18 am
  5. Refreshing, relevant and very honest Andy. I am like a child in a sweet shop when I go somewhere new, so I always get excited and effusive!
    Should it be a sponsored or hosted trip, I would always, like Karen, say so at the start of the article. You get to know which writers and bloggers give articles that are full of integrity and if there has been a challenge during the trip, it will be written about.
    I, like you, believe travel to be an ‘amazing’ privilege, but sometimes the rose coloured glasses have to be left at home.
    Thanks for reminding us about what really matters Andy.

    June 18, 2012 at 5:15 pm
  6. Arantxa #

    I hate disclosures.
    I am a reader, I dream about places I will never have the chance to travel to.

    I learn about people , culture and places and when I am enjoying my dream with no reason neither sense the happy ending, is interrupted with a lots of stupid explanations I don’t care at all, destroying with no respect my magical and sweet moment, just because engines and associations or groups or …..seem to know my interests or tastes better than me.
    Give me a good story, as Abi King says in her blog, tempt me, make me think, make me dream, teach me something but don’t interrupt my reading with something I wasn’t looking for.

    After this, Love you Andy.

    June 18, 2012 at 5:28 pm
  7. Intriguing, thought-provoking post, Andy.

    As a freelance journalist who’s been covering travel in international publications for years, I personally find it ridiculous and offensive that bloggers are required to disclose when a trip was hosted, yet print media outlets are not. The implication is that bloggers cannot be trusted to offer an unbiased opinion, while print publications are above reproach.

    I have always relied on the generosity of tourist boards, tour operators and other DMOs to provide my travel (there’s no way I could afford ANY of my trips on a freelancer’s salary). But I’ve also always seen my first duty as consumer advocacy for the readers, helping them figure out where THEY should spend their hard-earned cash.

    On more than one occasion (including a resort on our recent trip to Dominica), I have refused to write about a place or company that does not meet our standards or which I am not comfortable recommending to our readers. I do not believe in slamming someone’s business in print, but I refuse to write positively about ANYTHING I do not personally believe in. If I endorse a resort, a destination, a product or a service in a story, then I am willing to stake my reputation on the veracity of my opinion.

    Personally, I think anyone– blogger or print journalist– who does otherwise runs the risk of damaging their brand’s reputation.

    June 18, 2012 at 5:30 pm
  8. Thanks for the excellent comments. A lot of general agreement here. Bret, I agree with you that print outlets have the same (some would argue greater) responsibility to fully disclose.

    Honesty is, as always the key, and if people consistently write with the integrity that Tim, Karen, Lynne and Simon allude to then they will develop a credibility among their readers, whether in print or online, commissioned or self-published.

    Arantxa, I didn’t want to embarrass Abi when I wrote this but as you’ve mentioned her I’d add that many of her articles are exactly what I was thinking of when I said that a good storyteller will find a great unusual angle, that leaves me indifferent to whether the trip is hosted or not. But for the ‘inspirational’ posts from luxury resorts that we see on blogs as well as in magazines, I would like to know. Different readers, different priorities (but we know that). Oh, and thank you.

    June 18, 2012 at 7:44 pm
  9. Always enjoy your articles Andy & this one especially. Been debating this very topic with a journalist this week, re a trip he went on recently where, curate’s egg like, some parts were good & others not so enjoyable. Discussed what to reveal or not … I remember one article on a hotel stay where I simply omitted the crappy bathroom & debateable food & focused on some vague aspect of the friendly staff – only to have someone who’d the hotel later “on your recommendation” & was cross as it didn’t live up to her expectations … The sin of omission was mine, all mine! Mae culpa – but I will not doubt sin again ;-)

    June 19, 2012 at 11:16 pm
    • Thanks for sharing your experience Zoe and yes, no doubt we will all sin again in this regard, despite our best intentions. We can only include so much information after all. But perhaps your correspondent is a good reminder to us all that some people actually read what we write and may even act on our recommendations, so it’s up to us to be honest and open with them.

      June 25, 2012 at 10:56 am
  10. As usual, your honesty and straighforward-ness (I am sure that’s not a word!) impress me, Andy. When I trod through the blog list of my google reader, I go through so many of these articles with disclaimers. I can’t recall a single one that’s not positive. I don’t think that’s possible for ALL travel experiences. Either the fact that it was paid for made the article nicer, or more likely, the PR agency/host made sure that the blogger was kept in luxury and completely impressed all the time – both of these are not useful for a general reader (or someone who arrives through a google search) who is going to pay with his own money for the service. You have definitely raised a good point. Kudos to you!

    June 24, 2012 at 7:45 pm
    • Thank you Abhi – I suspect it’s a mix of both. The bloggers you mention are reluctant to criticise, but at the same time it is the job of the PRs and host to create an experience that leaves no room for any criticism. The challenge is getting beyond the laid-on experience and sharing with the reader the things that they are likely to find if they do the same thing without the fanfare that comes with a press trip. Not always easy….

      June 25, 2012 at 10:59 am
  11. When I read a travel article about a destination, event or activity, I am usually considering whether or not to visit or partake in that activity myself in the future. It is a little complicated as I limit myself to Europe even though the rest of the globe fascinates me as well. However, we all have to make choices about our consumption and Europe is currently my limit I do though I have a son in Japan I intend visiting in the future when the right timing and trains and ferries allow. I read your reports of managing travel in Japan with a limited budget with interest. The fact that it was not a press trip elevated its credence in my eyes.
    This topic gets aired frequently. In some discussions I suggested that the Press Trip Host might give their guests ‘special treatment’. The response I got was that it was often not a better experience than the general public, but worse. Either way the report of the trip is not an accurate portrayal of that experienced by a punter. Everyone has a slightly different take on it. It is up to every writer / publisher to ensure that they consider how they will approach the subject. It seems to me that it is a human trait to take a course of action and then entrench to defend that position.
    With literally millions of travel articles online, I personally prefer the ‘punter’s view’ as it means that I might be able to afford to travel in the same way. I don’t like to read 700 words only to discover I have been reading a hosted trip report or worse still a sponsored post. Full marks to Karen’s EalC posts because they always aim to be open and objective.

    June 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm