New FTC Rules that Travel and Photography Bloggers Should Note

October 29, 2009 · 8 comments

9-254-66  stock photo of Greece, Athens, Mannequins in shop window

Travel photographers. Have you ever receieved free or discounted gear or travel ?

The FTC has proposed new rules on disclosure and endorsements which all travel journalists should review and understand.

The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

One travel writer, Ed Hasbrouck or Practical Nomad has praised the guidelines as “the right way to go, both as a matter of truth-in-advertising (the issue for the FTC) and professional ethics.”

Subsidized trips have long been a controversial staple of the travel journalism field, a marriage of convenience between underfunded writers and photographers and tourism boards and properties and their PR companies eager to promote their destinations. Without assistance from the the travel industry, the only “reporting” on travel destinations would be from self-paying tourists and those few on assignment from the very top-tier publications.

The primary issue, however, in my mind is not the degree of subsidy but the detachment and objectivity of the reporter. Moreso with writing than photography it is certainly possibly for a travel writer to produce a puff-piece about a destination, thereby misleading the reader. Publications ought rightly to be wary of writers who are uncritical of their subject matter, who in the worst case parrot press releases. Excellent writers are able to find and present an engaging and disinterested story unrelated to any “perks” they get. It is easier, of course, with topical destination features as compared with more nuts-and-bolts hotel and restaurant reviews, but the same principle holds.

Given the ongoing controversy in travel writing circles about subsidized travel as shown in the ongoing Twitter discussion on #twethics, the FTC rules are a welcome relief. I have added my own full disclosure on the footer of every page, and will leave it up the reader to determine if they think such support prejudices my coverage. My aim is always to find what is interesting and engaging in each destination and not be swayed by the public relations efforts of my hosts, despite their best intentions. They are doing their job and material support is most appreciated, but it is the location itself which must be compelling on its own.

I encourage other travel photographers and writers to support the new FTC guides and produce their own disclosures. It will only help our profession and, in the long run, the destinations, people and cultures we cover.

[UPDATE: This legal analysis by David Honig of Palate Press covers what options the FTC might have in enforcing the “guidelines.”

  • Pingback: Free samples and free tastings – this thing with disclosure | BKWine Magazine

  • http://www.euraildeals.com Eurail Pass

    sounds like another layer of bureaucracy to me.

  • JimmieBlake

    What's their business with what I choose to photograph and what not? If I'm going on carnival cruise lines and it just strikes me to take a snap shot, do I have to explain myself to someone, so that someone won't think it's unfair publicity? It's an attack to journalists everywhere, it's an enclosure to our liberty and right to get our information from wherever we choose to. We shouldn't have to pay anything for it, because we're doing our job in bringing information to people.

  • Anonymous

    Red Rock is by far the best resort in Las Vegas! Maybe I’m partial because I hit a $2,300 jackpot playing slots, but this place was luxurious, yet affordable, and they treated me like royalty the entire time. I am definitely returning next year!

  • http://www.voxcall.com making international calls

    Taking snap shots of places you visit is part of the passion. I don't care about those controversies, mine is just I love reading articles and blogs about travelers own experiences because it gives inspiration and information about destinations.

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  • bkwine

    I'm not sure to what extent this thing with disclosure is a very US thing or if it's just a subject where we have different opinions.

    To me it is a non-issue.

    Most journalists (including photographers) could not continue their activity if they were to pay for everything themselves and not receive various sorts of “freebies”.

    And why should bloggers be required to 'disclose' when print press is not? Can you imagine a sports journalist paying for the ticket to the sporting event? Or have you ever seen a disclosure on the sports pages. Or a music critic? What about the fashion pages of Vogue? Do you think that the magazine buys all those designer clothes in their shoots? Or do they carry a disclosure?

    Readers are not so easily fooled.

    W Blake Gray wrote an interesting piece here: http://wblakegray.blogspot.com/2009/11/dear-ftc

    And what use is a disclosure anyway? Should the reader think “hm, there was a freebie involved here so I will not really believe what they say in this particular article. But the other ones are fine.”

    No. It's a question of blogger/writer/photgrapher ethics and morale. You cannot stipulate that with an FTC rule. If you are “swayed” by freebies, what difference does it make if you have a disclosure?

    You cannot fool the readers forever so if you are corrupt you will sooner or later loose your credibility and your readership and your customers. Or so I hope.

    I wrote a longer piece on it here: http://www.bkwine.com/blog/2009/11/free-samples… where I also quote your post.

  • jimgoldstein

    Full disclosure can only be a good thing. Thanks to the transparency of the online world a lot of folks are just now learning about long standing relationships and perks for this type of thing. I'm not sure that anything will change other than a modest bump in reader/viewer scrutiny. Negative perception only jumps when someone isn't forthcoming with information. At that point everyones imagination runs wild which is never a good thing.

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