Travel Blog Ethics – Are you travel blogging with this in mind?

Laptop with mouse and money in the background
Are you blogging ethically or for money? (click to enlarge)

Do you Travel Blog Ethically? Do you even care?

The debate over travel blogging vs journalism vs travel writing is an old one. I think it’s fair to say old media, whether it likes it or not, is merging with new media. But, are we returning the consideration?

The global merge of ethical content:

Travel writers & journalists nearly all run a blog of some sort these days. And, as mainstream newspapers and magazines role out online versions of their platforms the world watches as they scramble to make money from them. The blogger, or in this case travel-blogger is a little further ahead in the game here.

As more and more people turn to the internet for sources of information, causal reading, and weekly catch ups; blog writers are staring at new responsibilities. The problem is, blogging in itself is still a broad term, so the water’s far more murky than “old school” media.

Merging of formats goes both ways:

I’ll settle my argument of the “vs” argument now:

Travel bloggers that deliver high quality content, of one sort of another, in my view, are modern day columnists.

So too are the travel-writers & journalists that run articles either on personal sites, or through / for media companies.

Medical staff at a riot
Reporting on events can be done by everyone, but the standards will be different

Journalists, for the better part, will usually have had a direct education in the field of ethics during their education. Travel writers, again, will or should, have a background in language, writing etc. Least I mention extensive experience in the wide aspects of traveling. Travel bloggers, for the main part are usually experienced in travel & bring with them their own relevant backgrounds.

Enter the “ethics for travel blogging”:

Journalists will have a strong understanding of ethics. It’s a leading part of their education and training.  Though these days the “old school” journalists have to fight tooth and nail with the marketing / finance department to not over step the boundaries in favor of financial gain for the corporation.

Travel Writers are well experienced in the sacrificial ethics of travel writing. Compromises on physical hotel reviews versus a quick telephone call to see if they are still there have been documented already. Lower budgets, higher expectations, easy access to information make it all too tempting. Despite this, freebies also seem to have slipped under the radar for travel writers for a long time. This comes under the guise of travel flights / expenses being too much to cover.

Travel bloggers answer only to themselves, and for a few, to their readers. Some do it for the love of it, others for the idealistic dream of financing their travels, others again for the ego trip of a lifetime. Here the temptations really pull heavily; or in my eyes, are often completely blindsided.

Blogging Ethics gone awry?

Disclosure is getting a lot of press these days on the blogging front. Travel bloggers who write articles loaded down with affiliate links. Write sponsored reviews in exchange for cash or products. Or keyword stuff their articles (the process of writing specifically for the purpose of ranking high in search engines).

Affiliate links don’t bother me much, as usually it’s pretty obvious they are links to a product. (mentioning this in your site disclaimer is nice)

Sponsored reviews without adding a disclaimer to the top of the article turns me off the writer immediately. Writing at the bottom comes across, to me, as just slipping it in. Be up front from the start.

Taking trips, or products in return for a company or product should likewise be mentioned in every article you write. Failure to do weakens your long term credibility in my eyes.

Likewise the terrible line “Although my stay was sponsored by <company> my views are my own” – Yea, right. A bad review means no call back for a freebie next time. Just drop the pretense or come up with something better.

Keyword stuffing for the purposes of SEO is much less obvious to the casual reader. One of the worst offenders are some awful companies writing blogs within their site; and then loading them with babbling garbage about something they are trying to rank for. Worse still is when they entice the average travel blog writer to give them free content or photographs to do the same thing.

Selling text links goes against Google and other search engine rules. It’s when you see something like “holidays in Majorca” or “cheap flights” appear in the middle of someones blog post. That blogger has been paid to put that text with a link to companies webpage. It basically tells the search engines that you think that that’s where the best “whatever” is located. The search engines then move the companies page up on the search results. Get it? It’s nothing to do with “advertising” it’s all to do with taking money to manipulate search results.

While Google and other search engines have taken great lengths to combat this, the practice goes one. Worse yet some Travel blogs simply don’t understand that this is not advertising. Yet they continually refer to it as such. At the end of the day Google lose trust in websites that sell text links and the travel blogs that do slowly drop in their own rankings. While the companies paying get much worse penalties.

Travel Photography and ethics:

Sadhu at a festival
What about this guy? Do you need permission from someone at a public festival? It’s something you should know if you display photographs.

Journalists and Writers usually have to abide by rules here, or at least their legal departments ensure they do. But when was the last time a Travel Blogger had a subject give permission to use their photo?  That little old lady at the market might not be so happy having her face up for the whole world to see? Few and far between I think.

It isn’t just blogging either. Uploading photos of people to public folders in Facebook, Flickr or other social media platforms can have seriously detrimental effects on their lives. Do check out my post on the ethics of travel photography.

That’s it for this part, it’s a lot to digest. I’ll have a follow up to this where I’ll write up a few failed travel blog ethics I’ve come across that have destroyed lives.

For now though, here are a few things to think about & ask:

Do you keep ethics in mind when you write online or offline?

Do you even care?

Do disclaimers annoy you when you read online, or should they be done away with?

What’s the answer to the merging of these writing platforms whilst still maintaining credibility?

Coming soon:

Travel Blog Ethics: how to avoid getting people killed or jailed.

Here’s a direct link to Travel Blog Ethics 2

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19 Replies to “Travel Blog Ethics – Are you travel blogging with this in mind?”

  1. It’s an interesting topic, and not one I had consciously thought about prior to blogging. I think I naturally tend to adhere to a code of internal ethics that more or less match up with those you list above. I’m curious to see your failed travel blog ethics. I don’t think it’s feasible nor necessarily right to prevent people from uploading pictures to blogs or other internet sites like Flickr, though if the pictures will be used for commercial purposes the blogger should seek consent.

    1. -Keith- Yes, I too try and stick with a code of personal ethics. The problem here is that maybe not everyone is so morally conscious, or for that matter holds the same beliefs as you. I do however think we’ll see a clamping down on the free usage of peoples images.

      -Bethany- Actually, individual countries have different laws regarding photographs and their usage. Which in turn makes usage more difficult when you consider the implications of a “global” internet source. At the moment in the UK there’ s a huge problem with photographers (press, media, tourism) who are being openly harassed by the police under “section 44”, the terrorism act. A simple search of “I’m a photographer not a terrorist” will bring you up a lot of content.

      -Abbey Hesser- Congratulations on your first sponsored post! Personally I would just write a one of two line sentence informing your readers that this is a sponsored post. Keep it short & simple!

      And, yes it’s often difficult to get candid photographs from people after you have asked permission. I use two methods for this. 1. Shoot away, and then go up and ask. 2. Get permission, then take a long time photographing. Eventually the subject will relax & you’ll get that candid photo!

  2. Yeah, I definitely am interested in the failed list as well.

    I know as far as photography goes you do not have to ask anyone for their photo, it is up to you and the situation.

    The only time you need actual written consent is if you want to sell the work commercially.

    You can also take a picture of pretty much anything, anywhere. The only time someone can stop you from taking a photo is if you are on private property and the owner of that property asks you to stop. I see this photographers right being violated all the time because photographers don’t know that the law is on their side.

  3. Interesting perspective. I honestly hadn’t thought about most of this. I’m about to write my first sponsored post and I will definitely take your advice to stick the “disclaimer” at the top of the post. I was wondering how to get that out there without making it seem sneaky. I’m usually shy away from photographs of people because I’m generally too shy to ask for permission (and usually permission ruins the candid-ness of their being in general). But I would always want permission if the face is showing as I would expect someone to ask me if they took my picture.

  4. brilliant article, and a topic we all need to think about. for me, the photos are the hardest part. i think it is respectful to ask for the photo, before you take it – but how to tell them it will be up online? and, that people might right click copy STEAL it?

    1. -jessiev- Thanks Jessie. I think in many places, bar remote, people are aware of internet publishing. But yes, the word “publish” so some may mean $. The issue of stealing photographs online is a huge thing too. Only real way to prevent is to watermark them.

      -Ivy- Hi Ivy, nice to see you here again! Biggest flower is coming up later in the week. It’s apart of a separate mini series. I might change the tag line at the bottom is it’s not clear what’s coming up next. Anyone else?

      Glad you know the answer to the privacy issue ;)

  5. Hello there, and what about the biggest flower?

    Isn’t their a law of some kind of thing that protect people and there privacy? (just to say something, no need to answer, we know the answer.) :)

  6. Very thought provoking article. Like Keith, I, too, attempt to follow an internal code of ethics. However, as I delve further into sponsored situations, there has to be a line drawn. You said succinctly, be honest about it. I’m not against Flickr and such – seems like a great communal source. But as I hit the road, my plan is to be respectful and ask permission. Whenever I do an interview, I show my guest questions in advance, and never deviate much. If it’s not a podcast, I send them the interview the night before it publishes, so they know exactly how it will go live. Very interested in the offenders you mention. Hope I’m not one of them. :)

    1. -Nomadic Chick- Internal ethics are nice, but not everyone might be as good as you! I’m not against Flickr(aside from the fact it’s one of the largest places people go to take images without permission) nor any photo sharing site. The problem is when people post snap shots on such media when others don’t want it. e.g. facebook, uploading photos of people there. Maybe the next day person A doesn’t show up for work. Boss logs into facebook, sees photos from another employee from the night before. Next day person A is without a job. Asking permission is important, but so is adhering to it and the less obvious.

      And no, you are not on the offenders list, yet … ;) I won’t be mentioning names.

      -Trudy- That’s really good to hear Trudy. Glad to hear you’re having a deeper think about the other implications too. It’s not something that’s raised that much, but it’s still something that can affect a lot of people. Thanks for your comment!

      -Akila- Hi, and welcome! Yes your bring up a great point of privacy too. Many, many people simply don’t want their photo plastered over the internet. Facebook’s recent copyright changes brought that to the attention of everyone. I would not want to upload an image to any service that can then use it as they feel fit.

      A code of ethics for travel bloggers is a good idea, but would need some organizing, support, and understanding. Not to be taken lightly if done properly. At least that’s how I feel.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      1. I am new to this and will be embarking on a three month trip around China to write and shoot, so I love to absorb all these comments. I am from a major Canadian daily newspaper and there, we have a very strict code of ethics with regard to photography.

        I think we ought to take the lead and develop a code of ethics. It could be put together with many of these writers here and somehow get it out there as a Best Practice document. And one’s website could sport a logo featuring the site to be one adhering to those Best Practices.

        Am I an idealist? Perhaps. There is value personally and I would like to think, financially to being recognized as abiding by recognized ethics.

        1. Glad they have been of good use to you! Also glad to hear your newspaper has a strict code of ethics. In this day and age of glossy media reporting, it’s good to see.

          Taking the lead in forming a code of ethics: Hmmm. It’s certainly an idea of merit. And, I think there would be takers. If you take a look on my recent article on Is travel photography becoming endangered. You’ll see quite the debate from various photographer in the realm of travel. Not everyone has the same point of view.

          However, setting up a sort of creative commons style of travel photography or photography in general maybe the answer. Grades could be given to the image in question. But keeping it simple would be key. I think that’s a major failing of creative commons, there’s just too much too it that people don’t understand it fully.

  7. I have thought about some of this, in particular as pertains to photography, so I strive not to show people’s faces unless have explicitly been given authorization to do so. I would never advocate, inform or promote something I know will harm others. But any deeper than that, I hadn’t really given it much in-depth thought. It is good fodder for thought.

  8. The issue of photography is one that really concerns me because I know that I wouldn’t want my picture plastered all over the internet as a matter of privacy rather than legal rights. I try to take pictures of people’s faces only when I have asked them whether I can take their picture. Sometimes, like when there are huge numbers of people in front of a site, it isn’t possible to ask everyone for their permission but you usually can’t see their faces that closely anyway.

    Great article, by the way. The food blogging community has created a bloggers code of ethics.

    I wonder if the travel blog community should take the same sort of initiative.

  9. photography is tricky. normally there is the model release/consent form. but if you’re just snapping random travel pics that happen to have people on them… it’s not likely you even interract! and then uploading them to your social media platforms.. is it right? i’m not sure. i try not to use many portraits when i show my photography.

    1. -floreta- Yes random travel photographs in public places should be no problem, at the moment. I listened to a podcast the other night from a pro photographer who simply got it wrong. Not quoting here but:

      “Yea, in India no one has the internet so you won’t run into problems.”

      In fairness to the guy it was a 2007 show. But the Internet in India is huge. If someone finds a photo of themselves on the cover of a blog, I would not be surprised if they requested payment, or for it to be taken down.

      It’s something that makes photography for the non-professional quite difficult these days. Pro’s can pay and get model release forms with no issues, or relatively few. A typical traveler with a blog, is less likely to do this. And while less likely to sell their work online. It can happen.

      And then, there’s the whole privacy thing … I’ll discuss this a little more in the next article.

      Thanks again for your comment!

  10. Excellent post, Dave. I don’t care if someone has their own personal blog or travel journal, it will never give them the right to share “personal” stories at someone else’s expense. I see all too often online forums and social networking sites used as weapons to intentionally hurt, embarrass, or expose people under the guise of “expression”. And it repulses me. Don’t even get me started on putting someone in a life-threatening situation. Can you tell you hit a raw nerve with me here? ;)

    1. -Trixie- Hi & Welcome! Thanks, yes sharing personal stories at someone else’s expense is not a right. In the last decade social media has risen to form another part of society. With it though, comes responsibility. There can be a lot of good with expressing one’s personal thought and opinions online, but also a terrible amount of harm. Getting this message out there, will hopefully help!

  11. >>Journalists will have a strong understanding of ethics. <>Travel Writers are well experienced in the sacrificial ethics of travel writing.<>Journalists and Writers usually have to abide by rules here, or at least their legal departments ensure they do.<>That little old lady at the market might not be so happy having her face up for the whole world to see? Few and far between I think.<<

    Not necessarily so. This is quite easy to resolve — ask pple before you take their photo and tell them what it will be used for (if you plan to use put it somewhere). Frankly we've rarely come across someone happy to have their photo taken who changed their mind when they were told it might end up in a publication, on the web, or in a book. It's a nice gesture too, to try and give photos back. Not always possible, but quite often it is with a bit of effort (yes it may cost some $$ but you're 'taking' someone's image, so I think it's a reasonable exchange).

    1. -Robyn- Hi & Welcome,

      Yes, for many people simply asking permission first a great first step, so long as they actually do it. Some problems start when you take into account language & cultural differences. “Miscommunication”, as it will later be determined. Handing over money for a photo is not always the best solution on many an account. e.g.

      It promotes the terrible “1 Dollar” for a photo phrase which is spreading throughout the world.
      Money is not the best thing to hand out to some people i.e. drug users e.t.c.,
      If the photo you took starts to sell, or ends up as a cover shoot, verbal agreements tend to disintegrate.

      A lot of this depends on your usage of said photograph of course. But yes for the average travel snap shot, handing back your photo before you leave is a great idea for many to take up on!

      Thanks for your comment!

      -marryam- Hi there, as I mentioned, this is not going to be a Tibet v China, political discussion. Glad you enjoyed the read.

      -Susan- Hi Susan, yes you bring up a good point. Ethics is a show of character. Hopefully within the travel blog / writing genre one’s peers will help with ensuring ethically correct works are noted. Then again, bad news sells …

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