BP Dollars Fund Travel Writer Junket to Gulf Coast*

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  09.30.10 | 2:50 PM ET

Tourism boards often invite travel writers to visit places, all expenses paid, hoping for positive coverage.

The practice has always raised ethical concerns, but a recent junket to the Gulf Coast is drawing more critical attention than usual because the funding originated with BP. The oil company gave $551,000 to the Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Council, and the council used a small portion of it to bring six travel writers to Florida’s Navarre Beach region. According to an article in the Pensacola News Journal (a Los Angeles Times blog has also picked up the story), they were “chauffeured around in a limo” and put up in condominiums “to get the word out that this summer’s BP oil spill is over, and the beach, along with the rest of Santa Rosa County, is open for tourism.”

According to the same article, the writers worked for publications such as Baton Rouge Parents, the Houston Tribune, Southern Hospitality Magazine, PlanetEyeTraveler.com, UPTake.com and JustSayGo.com.

Among the writers on the trip was Ron Stern, who wrote an article for JustSayGo.com raving about his visit.

After checking in, I wasted no time and headed out to check the beach and water conditions. As I suspected, what I found was a beautiful white sand beach (actually comprised of quartz) with no visible tar. I waded out into the emerald-green water and looked for any signs of smelly, slimy oil. Nope, nothing except for some swimmers, seagulls and families enjoying the sunshine, gorgeous water and clean shores. So much for everything I had been hearing and seeing, at least in Navarre.

Kate Wilkes, the executive director of the Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Council, told me she was happy to be able to bring writers to the area. Not every place in the Gulf suffered the same kind of damage from the oil spill, she said. Little oil is to be found on Navarre Beach, yet visits have plummeted and the area has seen bed tax dollars drop 40 percent in the last year. Local businesses are hurting.

“The national news made it sound like we were all covered with oil and dead pelicans,” she said. “My job is to make sure that as long as it’s safe and a good place to take a vacation, that people know about it.”

Was she troubled by the fact that coverage of the trip could also play into BP’s public relations campaign?

“They created this mess and it ruined peoples’ lives,” she said. “Our summer season was crippled. We know from the hurricanes that it can take two or three years to come back from these things. They need to help make people whole.”

She added, “If it helps BP, there won’t be a moment that I’ll say BP has done their job and we’re all square. It could be three years before we can say that.”

She didn’t know whether the writers were aware their trips were funded by BP. Had they asked, she said, they would have been told, adding, “There are certainly no secrets about it.”

Update: 4:12 p.m. ET: I just spoke with Ron Stern, who wrote the JustSayGo.com story.

He said he didn’t know at the time he was on the trip that funding for it had come from BP. Had he known, he would have stayed home: “For perception purposes, I wouldn’t have taken the trip.”

Nevertheless, he’s not sure this trip raises any new questions about junkets and ethics just because it was funded by BP.

“The reality is you could make the same argument about any press trip,” he said. “Do press trips compromise objectivity? Nobody tells me what to think or write and I wrote it as I saw it.”

He said he finds some of the coverage about the trip “extremely offensive” because it suggests the writers were beholden to BP and “in their pocket.” That, he said, wasn’t the case.

13 Comments for BP Dollars Fund Travel Writer Junket to Gulf Coast*

Dan 09.30.10 | 3:41 PM ET

The risk, of course, is that the writer feels obligated to write a positive story in exchange for the compensation. It’s a practice that journalists should be wary of.

With that said, Ms. Wilkes is absolutely correct. Navarre Beach is fine, and so are the majority of the Gulf Coast beaches. It makes sense to convince travel writers to cover the area and tell that story, but it doesn’t seen very honest to pay the writers for the coverage.

pam 09.30.10 | 3:54 PM ET

I’d like to know more about this. Gushing travel writer nonsense isn’t new, but the funding here is pretty suspect. Were the writers able to talk with fishermen? Were they able to get projected information about if/when the oil would hit those immaculate beaches? Were the writers required by their publishers to disclose that they’d been funded by BP? Did any of them go off the reservation to find out the local point of view on the spill? Sure, there are gulf beaches that were unaffected by the spill. Lucky them. But is that the BP story? I don’t THINK so.

Sketchy, sketchy doings all around.

Sheila Scarborough 09.30.10 | 6:45 PM ET

Well, BP was required to give the US Gulf states money to make up for the hits to tourism from the oil spill, right?

Sounds like the Santa Rosa County tourism entities used part of their BP money to fund what appears to be a pretty standard press trip/fam tour.  The merits and demerits of press trips have been debated in some detail elsewhere. One side says you can be objective as a guest on a fam, the other side says you can’t. I won’t get into that here. The fact is, fams are pretty standard industry practice.

I have no problem with tourism authorities using that BP money any way they saw fit to promote tourism.  Their reaction was probably quite reasonable: “Let’s use some of that money to get some writers down here to see the beaches for themselves.”

If the writers who came on the fam didn’t see the need to do some exploring, poking around and interviewing on their own, that’s not the fault of the tourism organization.

John Keahey 09.30.10 | 10:42 PM ET

It’s likely true that travel writers who go on all-expenses-paid trips to tourist destinations usually don’t run their stories past their hosts and are “free” to write ‘em as they see ‘em.
But those writers who write negative stories eventually are dropped from the invitation list; that in itself is enough to keep most of them dishing platitudes. Such travel writing is shallow and unhelpful to most readers.
When the writers’ employers do what they should do and cover the writers’ expenses, the most readers can expect is canned pablum. Pam’s use of the word “gushing” is appropriate here.
There are only a few great travel writers, and WorldHum does a good job of finding and publishing them. Keep up the good work.

John Keahey 09.30.10 | 10:44 PM ET

The third graph of my post above should start out with the word “Unless” rather than “When.”

Tim L. 09.30.10 | 11:52 PM ET

Would we be this bent out of shape if the writers invited down had been ones who reported from their cozy desks that all the beaches along the Gulf Coast were tainted with oil? Tourism fell off a cliff after that spill in places as far as Clearwater and Ft. Meyers just because of the media coverage and people were asking me if the beach was okay where my house is IN MEXICO, so I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable for the tourism bureaus to try to set the record straight any way they can.

Sure, it would feel slimy knowing BP was the ultimate funding source for a trip I was on, but then again, that seems fair doesn’t it? They’re probably going to be funding every press trip to a whole long coastal region for years to come, whether it’s directly from them or it gets routed through the state or local government first.

John Keahey 10.01.10 | 2:50 AM ET

Several reporters left their cozy desks and went to the various scenes of the disaster and reported what was going on. Two who I know spent weeks on the Gulf Coast, day after day after day. They talked to fishermen, residents, hotel owners, others whose livelihood was tied to the Gulf, BP officials, government officials—and their bills were paid by their news organizations.

Tourism fell off in Clear Water and Fort Meyers and dozens of other places because of BP’s oil spill, Tim.  Without it, the tourist industry there would have had a fine year. Let’s put the blame where it should be, not on the messenger.

And I am confused by the “slimy” and “fair” counterpoint broached in the previous comment. It is not fair, but “slimy” captures it pretty well.

Hotel Redondo Beach 10.01.10 | 9:24 AM ET

Weird… BP is causing controversy.  Say it isn’t so, this company has to be more careful with their decisions at this time!

pam 10.01.10 | 10:47 AM ET

I’ve been thinking this through and had a few offline conversations about this. This has made me shift my thinking slightly.

It’s likely the writers didn’t know it was BP footing the tab.It looked like, smelled like tourism dollars to them. This doesn’t change the disclosure issue, but I’m less inclined to blast them for taking the trip on the source of funding alone.

Also, the follow the money thing is a little muddy—it’s not hard to argue that my recent press trip to Alaska was paid for with BP money too, they run the pipeline after all, and oil money makes Alaska go. It’s a interesting problem when you start peeling up the layers.

That said, for me, the proof remains in the puddling on press trips. What did these writers produce? A microscopic view of one clean place with no context? The same old wilted flowery prose about white sand and tasty seafood as experienced through the mellow buzz of sponsored cocktails? For me, it’s the work, it’s always the work, that establishes or damages the writers credibility. BP paid for the trip, but that, in itself, doesn’t make me think they’re for sale. The articles I see as a result? Yeah, that’ll do it.

Where do you stop when you follow the money trail? Most, I think, stop at the source of the invitation. Check it out—I recently received an invite to do a Native American cultural tour. Is that funding by tobacco and fireworks and gambling? Should I find out?

John Keahey 10.01.10 | 11:29 AM ET

Pam: Thanks for your straight-forward approach to this issue. For what it’s worth, regarding your question at the end, knowing the reason behind the request and the source of the money is important. We demand that of our politicians and public-sector employees all the time. Shouldn’t we be held to the same standard?

I grew up in the business at a time when no one worried about getting free ski passes—it was called “advertising trade-out” then—or discounts for theater tickets, etc., etc. For some reason, I was awake during the ethics lecture in Journalism 101, and it registered on me. I declined such offers when they came. Now days, my newspaper would fire someone in a heartbeat for accepting such largess. We don’t even eat the meal offered at events we are covering.

This opinion, of course, is from the point of view of a reporter/editor of a moderately large U.S. daily that has resources to pay reporters’ expenses. I understand that freelancers often do not have the resources they need to do all the travel required for their work. This is a quandary, and I don’t know what the solution is. But at least do what Pam suggests: Find out who’s paying and where the money came from. And disclose the fact that the trip was paid for by people with a vested interest in the outcome.

Shannon Hurst Lane 10.01.10 | 11:30 AM ET

Of course BP ultimately funded the trip. They caused the mess. They’ve put up millions of $ to assist the destinations with their tourism marketing efforts. No one protested the free Gulf Coast concert paid for by BP funds. It helped pump some much needed revenue into the local economies, if only for a weekend. I’d rather see press junkets where the local limo business makes $ from carting the writers around & condo owners getting rental fees for housing them than seeing the $ spent on tv ads that no one pays attention to.

I spent my childhood vacations at Navarre Beach and it’s so sad to see the places I love to visit as a consumer being shut down from irresponsible reporting. Yes, I call the media frenzy of oil photos all over the place irresponsible. It gives the public the perception that these destinations have closed down and there’s nothing left. There’s so much more than just grains of sand at these places. I know almost every single one of the travel writers on this junket in question and I’ll be reading their stories to see what they have to say. When I visited (sponsored AND on my own dime) there was a distinct lack of tourists.

The oil is going to come and go on the beaches, depending on the tide, currents, and weather. One day there may not be any oil, the next day a slew of it might wash up. I posted photos from our drive along the coast, including the lack of oil at Navarre Beach at the time (back in July) -

Quit griping about the oily sand and start writing about what people CAN experience so we can help these destinations make it through such a crappy time. I’m all about saving the environment, which is long term. But short term issues need to be addressed as well, and that includes helping communities stay afloat..

Tim L 10.01.10 | 4:04 PM ET

“This opinion, of course, is from the point of view of a reporter/editor of a moderately large U.S. daily that has resources to pay reportersí expenses.”

And what is your next career move John? Sure, it would be lovely if every freelancer worked for a print pub that paid all expenses, but how much longer before half the remaining ones who do that are extinct? Many of them that used to cover expenses now don’t because they’re barely staying afloat.

As Pam and Shannon said, it’s what’s on the page that matters. For the general reading public, who paid for a writer’s trip is about #147 on their list of things to be bothered about today. Only people in “the biz” care enough to even have this discussion.

Mary Huff 10.11.10 | 5:19 PM ET

I’m more concerned about freelance writers getting paid so pitifully little ($25-$35 per story) that they don’t leave their desk, don’t even call the CVB or destination and instead Google their way to a story.  The result?  Suggesting a restaurant that’s 45 minutes from their suggested hotel and not even a great restaurant worth driving that far.  Never visited the area, probably never heard of it before receiving the assignment from the “content mill.”  That whole arrangement is ruining travel journalism more than FAM trips ever will.

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