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.”

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