The unseen dangers of travel blogging in new world media

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ September 20th, 2010. Updated on March 10th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » How to guides ....
Tibetan Boy with scarf covering face

Does today's media fail the Tibetan issue? Can citizen journalism do a better job?

Travel Journalism or Citizen Journalism or just travel blogging, is there a difference anymore?

There is no argument, citizen journalism is here. Though many mainstream print media outlets are still in denial, and dying because of it. Mainstream news agencies like CNN, BBC & The Guardian are embracing citizen journalism with open arms.

From Ireports, live blogging, twitter to syndication of just about anything we are all basically reporting any and; many aspects of everything around the globe.

Don’t break it down too much:

In travel people have often tried to categorize tourists in terms of how they travel:

  • The Backpacker
  • The Flashpacker
  • The Tourpacker
  • Couple travelers
  • Solo travelers
  • And so on …

While terms like flashpacker do annoy me as they are subjective, I do understand why they have come about. But, can the same be true of Journalism, Travel Blogging and Citizen Journalism, is there a difference in this day and age?

My take on what is Travel Journalism:

I won’t break it down much. But as a rough outline a person who writes about a subject with references to the world of travel, and of travel as an industry whilst keeping journalistic integrity at the forefront. Aka, quite broad.

Let’s tweak that a little. It’s not a person mouthing off about a hostel that charged extra after booking online.

It’s the person who contacts the online booker, gets their perspective and then the hostels.  Afterwhile they will write, video, podcast etc their findings, and their side of the case if need be.

But, in this day and age of new media is Travel Journalism also producing content on world events that make the news … yes. The lines are blurring.

Citizen Journalism or Travel Blogging?

Citizen journalism seems to be getting diluted a lot these days. Either that or it’s still trying to find its feet. But, in my book citizen journalism usually comes from a non-professional “journalist” reporting on a story.

Nigerian Police at work

Can a blogger really give an accurate description of a scene? Or are they overshadowed by something else?

Much like a travel blogger. A non-professional journalist giving their version of events.

So, from here on out in this article, citizen journalism, and travel blogging, are one in the same.

What both journalism & travel blogging  are not:

Can a travel blogger realistically report on a situation. Take the Redshirt protests in Bangkok in early 2010. Can a non-national traveler in Bangkok subjectively give an accurate assessment on the situation there?

On the ground most certainly they can. They can report that the redshirts are pouring blood on a certain street. State that someone just heard a gunshot. This is the new side of reporting, that traditional journalists have problems keeping up with.

Why? Traditional journalists need to get approval from editors and the like before anything gets published. Travel bloggers and citizen journalists do not.

Dangers of both Citizen/ Travel Blogging and Journalism today:

Traditional journalism is floundering and also making giant leaps. Quality articles like that of The New York Times online or Reuters are unleashing a bevy of editorial writings which is excellent. Even CNN’s reporting seems to have stepped up a notch compared to 10 years ago.

The problem here is that legal bureaucratic restrictions hamper modern-day journalism, along with the profit and loss column. Some would argue that this is a good thing, confirmation in news media is king. At, least that’s what their legal departments will tell them.

From the ashes:

The death of Photo Journalism seems to have already been called (source).

And, with all this; citizen journalism and blogging has found its niche. Mainstream media can report on the citizens of the world who are blogging, tweeting, podcasting, photographing and reporting on incidents they have access to the world over.

However, while mainstream media is hampered by paperwork, blogging is hampered not by workmanship (craft maybe), but by proof. One tweet by even a respected blogger in Bangkok about hearing a gunshot could set the media world on fire. And, therein lies the danger.

Case in point: Why we need people who can step up to the plate

Recently a Los Angeles documentary photographer Jonas Lara was arrested and charged with felony vandalism for photographing two graffiti artists at work (source).  After more than 24 hours in jail, his equipment confiscated, his wife bailed him out.  Since then charges have been dropped, and a court order was made for the return of his equipment.

Indian girl sell sweets on a road

Is this life? Or a story about child workers? Who's better to find out?

Should he have been arrested for baring witness to a crime?

If so, then I fall on the side of you should then arrest every war or documentary photographer for witnessing murders, kidnapping, crime.

Maybe travel bloggers and citizen journalists will also need to start bearing witness to what they have described too? And, in some regards back it up, or pay the price.

My own view is

The world needs people to document what’s happening in it, good or bad.

Sadly it seems paranoia and bureaucracy is closing in on this.

Back to ethics & legalities:

Ethics in travel blogging and citizen journalism are becoming more subjective to the individual and not the industry. This is dangerous. Whilst one may have no problem photographing that Tibetan or Thai protester. The bottom line is, do you have the right?

Mainstream media will buy/take your story. So, you are now “the reporter”.

But, read the fine print, and all accountability is on you, not them.

Publicity for nothing

What’s more, who doesn’t like the spot light? If you were in Georgia or Kyrgyzstan and took a photograph of an army officer shooting an old man, and CNN asked for it. What if you say yes?

Yes, you are now an Ireporter, who just handed over a photograph that’s going to be distributed around the world and profited on for free. Meanwhile the freelance journalist next to you got release forms and just sold his to Getty for a whole lot more than free.

Meanwhile that old man’s son just contacted the news station broadcasting it with legal action for a breach of privacy, no consent etc. Hmm, any idea where you stand legally now?

So is there difference between citizen journalism, travel blogging and travel journalism?

Yes, is my answer. There still is a difference. But it may well be on the verge of changing.

It’s a yes and no thing, for now. With no one winning.

Social journalism is here. Like all new media it’s bumping and tumbling around the world right now. Some people like it, some hate it.

It’s a new age, and you’re witnessing history

Traditional media can’t always get the job done these days. A prime example of this is During the Iraq war Reuters lost several people in a firefight. They knew there was footage, the USA government refused to release it. Wikileaks got it, somehow, and published the video.

It’s a harrowing video. It proves a lot on both sides. To me, the most important thing is, that it got out. Is a journalistic organisation? No. But what they did was tell the world a story no one else could, and if that’s not good journalism, I don’t know what is.

Can a social/citizen journalist/blogger do the same thing? Can they do it correctly,

And, if so, who does the responsibility lie with?

This is an additional editorial featuring travel related articles, view points, conversational topics and helpful resources based on experiences I’ve learned from my around the world journey

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23 Great responses to The unseen dangers of travel blogging in new world media

  1. This is a great post, glad i ran across this blog. Didnt really think we had these problems.

  2. Renny says:

    I think responsibility falls on those that publish it, not those that take the photograph. If we work that way, at least the media can get out, instead of sitting on a desk somewhere.

  3. Daniel N. says:

    Very interesting read Dave!

    I also understand your point, being actually the first blogger/tweep on the spot in Bangkok when the shooting started. I was tweeting live and taking photos that would be uploaded the next day and only after it ended did I see journalists on the spot.

    I was a citizen journalist for a second there. I did not write anything about it later but I reported what I saw directly without taking position on any side.
    Some of my photos got published. Did I get a penny? None!

    So yes, it was my point of view, it was live reporting by a traveler with no experience in journalism. Did it help in any way? I have no idea, but for sure many many people learned about what was happening when not even Reuters, CNN or any local news TV was on the spot.

    So in my opinion, I guess there still is a difference between Citizen journalism and travel journalism, as you pointed out, but there is a very blurry (almost non-existent?) line between citizen-reporters and professional reporters. I was not a journalist, I was just reporting live.

    • Sorry to hear you did not get a cent. I think the problem with Bangkok and getting things published is that there is already a huge media presence there. So you are up against those with connections, and a permanent presence.

      That said, if a media organisation did use your photos without permission, you can always go after them for taking your work without consent.

      Citizen journalists have a huge advantage, but also lack any support network. That will probably change when someone sees $$ in it. Which probably won’t be long from now!

  4. Justin M says:

    Just came across, this. Very interesting. I tend to look at the top blogs for trending news. Then the real world media for conformation. So yea, I think you’re right.

  5. Kelsey says:

    It’s for exactly the reasons you discuss in this post that I’m trying to get The Mongolian Experiment up. It’s not just a documentary-focused trip to Mongolia, it’s also my proof of concept that citizen journalists can tackle major (and expensive) projects even if they don’t have a news agency backing them. As you said, I feel that there’s a lot of the world that needs documenting, and it’s most often the stuff that the news agencies tend to neglect. That, I feel, is where it’s important for citizen journalists to step up to the plate.

    • Mainstream media generally goes with something that’s bound to make headlines. Keeps their advertisers happy, as there will be more people watching. Sadly, many, many news stories never even make local headlines as it doesn’t “fit” with current event themes.

      If it did, I’m sure stories like the world food crises, Zimbabwe, USA/BP oil spill, Georgia / Russia would still be making headlines … but, they are not, unfortunately.

      • Kelsey says:

        Yep, and that’s exactly where I feel it’s important for citizen journalists to be given the means necessary to expose those stories.

  6. I agree with Kelsey, ahh long time ago I was a video editor (betcha didn’t know that about me!) and worked in news editing for a short while.

    New directors have to worry about financial sponsors of the station and legalities, this limits what they can show on air.

    I was editing around the time of the Rwanda massacre and video we could have aired to truly show what was happening was censored.

    Is that good or bad? Call it shocking or not, it was the truth. Kelsey’s sentiment that there is much of the world to document and mainstream news agencies ignore it (or forced to) is chillingly true.

    Like any new media source, citizen journalism will tumble into some guidelines eventually.

    • I guess we can expect to see lot’s of video footage from your travels so ;)

      I think citizen journalism fills in the cracks that mainstream cannot. When it get’s picked up, is when the citizen journalist will often get lost in the bureaucracy of todays media. And, therein lies a danger to them.

      Nonetheless, it’s important that these stories continue to appear around the world. And, they are not interfered with. There are quite a few bloggers getting legal letters about what they are writing about these days. Sometimes big companies don’t like people to express there feelings in public through a media like environment. What lies ahead is going to be interesting

  7. Stacey says:

    Sadly, the most obvious difference is that journalists are trained professionals who can spell, use proper grammar and punctuation, know how to properly construct a sentence and ahdere to the ethics of the profession. Most bloggers and “citizen” journalists cannot be bothered with such details and wonder why they cannot get published.

    • Some valid points. However, paid “professional” journalists usually have an editor to correct things like spellings, grammar and punctuation. Ethics in journalism is indeed something they should have been trained in as well. But, these days it would seem most of that happens, again, in the editors room. Usually, with legal representatives present.

      I would not say “most” bloggers nor “citizen” journalists cannot be bothered with such details. In the realm of those that are traveling, most I would presume are doing so from a hostel dorm, or a guest house bed on not so good WIFI connections. Here, it’s also only one set of eyes going over the content. In such cases, it’s no wonder typos appear. What’s more, they are probably not getting paid for it. An excuse? Sure, a valid one I think.

  8. ayngelina says:

    It’s an interesting debate, one of the things that I’ve learned is that real issues run deep and have so much history and cultural significance that as a tourist I may not completely understand the issues.

    But I guess that’s the difference between reporting and editorializing. As long as it’s reporting the facts, without commentary, it can be a responsible contribution.

    • That’s a very good point about tourists not knowing the deep history nor cultural significance of many issues they encounter. Countered very well by your suggestion about reporting on facts, and not on commentary. But, it would seem, a lot of bloggers like to express their feelings too!

  9. JH says:

    Reading yr whole article is very intriguing, relating to the points u brought up.

    Citizen journalism is on the rise and getting more prominent, however, I feel it would not replace travel blogging totally yet, citizen journalism being more of situations & happenings versus travel blogging that concentrates on travel and tourism matters/stuff/locations.

    Photojournalism, could be facing a more interesting challenge as u mentioned inside your post, with the rise of citizen journalism, photojournalism might lose its ground & credibility, serious dedicated photojournalism versus citizens in their daily life sharing/showcasing their society life.

    I agree with u on the legal and ethics segment, it’s something that can be very disturbing and go out of control. In this era and new age social media networking, I have a feel there would be growth and learning on how the social media “self-regulate” before it is able to mature and settles down (hopefully).

    Just my 2 cents worth, thank u for writing & sharing & getting us thinking/analysing for the future of social media, blogging, travel journalism, photojournalism.


    • I agree with your points. However I do feel in travel bloggers often want to cross the lines in reporting on a situation. Yes, though. The majority are just blogging about their holidays and trips etc. So I think there will be a breakout trend in citizen journalism & travel soon. If not, already.

      Photojournalism seems more under threat from within I think. Photographers are being asked to also write the story they photograph too. And visa versa with writers too.

      Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts. As a journalist it was interesting to see you pick up on many things within the article!

      • Blogging is killing the profession of the photographer. It is unbelievable how many magazines write to me trying to get photos for free that they would have once had to pay a photographer for. I usually make them pay, but I fear that what I am receiving is only a fraction of what they once had to pay a professional photographer.

        • Indeed Wade, there is an ongoing clash happening. Eventually it will work itself out. But many will fall along the way.

          There are countless advertising agents contacting me for photograph. The biggest obstacle is that when I do reply, they spend a long time in dithering before eventually saying they are looking for low budget or free.

          I know they have money to spend on photographs. But, in order to save, they’ll happily take something with free commercial rights on Flickr instead. Or rather from those that don’t realize all this and don’t know that they’ve given their photography away for free. To a company making a lot of money from it.

  10. It seems to me as if the two wings of media are going together hand in hand. The corporate press is able to obtain access to information and people that we would have difficultly getting and we can post what we see and observe “from the ground” without much fear of offending our sponsors (haha), libel, or for publishing something against the grain of our readership. In this way, there are advantages to both forms of media, the mainstream must cater to the standard quo — and they are therefore respected by the masses — but we are free to write it as we see it. Both ways can work together to provide a bigger picture of an issue in the media.

  11. the legal ramifications of this really don’t bother me much at all. There is a news/fair use exception that is going to trump any sort of lawsuit for breach of privacy and such on any of these sorts of pictures. The possible threat of any lawsuit on any photo I sell to CNN or whomever isn’t going to bug me for one second — on the other hand, if somehow I do get a good, unique photo, I certainly am going to sell it and not give it away. Hell, if I was going to get no direct money for it, I’d do up a post about it on my own website.