Posted by: Bob Fisher | June 1, 2010

The Parallel Cultures of News and Travel Journalism


News organizations frequently emphasize the importance of investigative reporting, stressing the principle that in order for a story to be “newsworthy” it must be current and it must mean something to people.

It goes without saying that responsible news gathering also results in stories that are informative, accurate, and in the best interests of the general public. And those who work in the news reporting “business” also emphasize the importance of keen observational skills, in-depth research, and critical analysis.

But isn’t this also what travel journalists do?

Don’t we also strive to find meaning and make sense of the complex issues and cultures inherent in the destinations we visit, whether they are national, regional, or local? Do we also not serve in a problem-solving capacity in that we do our best to put the pieces of the puzzle together in such a way as to engage the hearts and minds of our readers? Are we also not “foreign correspondents” who encourage our consumers to engage in imaginative identification?

So how are the two professions similar? How are they different? In the news journalism business, reference is often made to “hard news” versus “soft news”. Are there equivalents in travel journalism?

Is travel journalism newsworthy?

I have heard it said that travel journalists should avoid contentious issues, and certainly not engage in “political” commentary. Well depending on how you define politics, this is easier said than done. Let me use Ottawa, the national capital of Canada, as a case in point.

This is a very story-rich city in which is inherent a political-historical journey of considerable importance. To truly understand Ottawa you have to examine the geopolitical context in which it evolved. And whereas the historic “issues” in what today is a quiet, unassuming national capital are profound, visitors may initially only see it as the lovely and orderly city it indeed is today. But if you delve deeper, you will find a very meaningful story with universal implications.

Incorporated in 1855, Ottawa was a remote lumber town and the by-product of colonialism. Located on the Ottawa River a “safe distance” from the Canada-United States border, the city was chosen as the capital by Queen Victoria because, as part of “British North America”, there was always fear of invasion by our neighbours to the south. And as Canada evolved and finally became a sovereign and independent nation (considerably later than our “American” cousins), the imminent threat of cultural and economic hegemony continued to be felt.

As a nation that decided to remain loyal to “the Crown” – as opposed to engaging in a revolution, declaring its independence, and becoming a republic – as a Crown Colony – Canada made a significant collective decision to remain part of the British Empire, and later the British Commonwealth. To this day we still engage in a lot of national introspection in this regard.

And even though we share what once was called (in the days before the 9/11 attacks) “the longest undefended border in the world” with our neighbours south of the 49th parallel, we still find ourselves struggling with problematic transborder issues with them. This is what comes of “being in bed with an elephant”, as our most charismatic prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, once said to the Washington press corps.

And, although many outside of North America see little difference culturally between the two principal nations of North America, if you ignore the historic and political events that caused each to evolve quite differently – similar of course, but different nonetheless – you will have “read” only part of the story.

The state of our craft today

In the 21st century, thanks in part to burgeoning new technologies, alternative media and alternative points of view about issues related to travel have increasingly seen the light of day. However, whereas we are no longer obliged (for commercial reasons) to just tell “good news” stories, as reponsible travel journalists and editors we still face the age-old challenge of producing coherent and literate travel stories that emphasize the qualitative features of the information as opposed to simply producing a corollary travel product that “sells” destinations.

A case in point

I became particularly aware recently of the essential “story behind the story” in Martinique.

On this beautiful and resource-rich island (resources that are both natural and cultural), I also learned that the institution of slavery is fundamental to a real understanding of the Creole culture of this French département.

Slavery was a tragic by-product of colonial empire-building; and to sustain itself the latter required exponential wealth and natural resources, such as the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. The African slaves brought to Martinique, as well as to other islands in the Caribbean, were of course considered only property and were treated as such. However, with the eventual abolition of slavery by France, a distinct and multidimensional Creole culture began to flourish and today is an important leitmotif in Martinique.

As is the case in many other post-colonial destinations, a geopolitical power shift and a renewed emphasis on the lessons of history have led to a tourism industry that is truly indigenous.

And Martinique is an important case study for anyone who has an interest in political sociology. Among other issues, this field of study focuses on the relations between state and society; and how social forces create a dynamic that defines what we often refer to simplistically as “culture”. But intrinsic to culture is the question of identity; and this is perhaps the most consciousness-raising aspect of travelling in Martinique – and writing about it.

The nature of news, culture, and storytelling

As travel journalists we are also cultural interpreters, not unlike news journalists who tell their “stories” in such a way as to inform and enlighten their readers. However, defining human culture, as I have suggested above, is as problematic or challenging as defining beauty, justice, or truth.

And yet in so many of our stories creating clarity about human culture is the essence of our message. And whereas we strive to avoid the “one size fits all” generic template of travel writing, we also are constantly challenged by the maxim that “We travel to explore the diversity of the human experience; and in so doing discover the commonality.”

All travel is a cultural experience on some level, whether it be just around the corner or far afield. And when we travel in a physical sense, we also travel in a conceptual sense. We paint portraits of human culture in all its hues and shades, and that includes the flaws. In so doing we collectively define who we are as a species.

And because it is also in our nature and our “job descriptions”, we also develop an experiential understanding of culture and how components such as belief systems, language, history, cultural objects, climate, and geography all shape our perceptions of “the other”.

As objective observers, we are often privileged to see first hand how the dynamic of culture implies power structures. And because we are in a position to constantly renew our frame of reference, we also frequently witness the juxtapostion of majority and minority worldviews.

And as journalists who make conscious and carefully considered choices as to how we will tell the story – not unlike news journalists who also build for their readers a specific frame of reference – we know (or should know) that all media is a construction, a point of view, an interpretation. I suspect that the more we examine how “the reporter” communicates what she or he has experienced (to the best of her or his ability), the better storytellers we become.

Storytelling is an ancient tradition and craft. It is also – like news – often issue-oriented, although the issues may be more universal than specific.

And as travel writers we also begin by asking fundamental questions. What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel? What is really going on? This too is investigative journalism. As Aristotle pointed out in his fourth-century BCE treatise on the city-state, “politics” deals with the structure, organization, and administration of the state. And the interplay and interconnectedness of the state and the people is a critical question for all journalists, in either the field of news or travel. How do you separate the state from the culture? What is “the state” as opposed to the nation? Or the culture?

Since the recent FIJET Congress in Shanghai, I have had the privilege of engaging in an ongoing dialogue by email with a journalist I met in Beijing. Although for me it is somewhat “after the fact,” and yet ongoing (surely one of the key goals of travel) he has helped me fill in some of the gaps in terms of my awareness of Chinese culture. He has also helped me shed some of my ethnocentric baggage. In a number of ways he has encouraged me to heed the caveat “Judge me by my culture, not by my government.”

The comprehensive skills and challenges of travel journalists

The travel journalists I have met around the world represent one of the most eclectic and multidisciplinary groups of people you could imagine; and they come to the métier from many different backgrounds.

And when in our professional capacity as journalists we explore a destination and strive to define its cultural elements, we are required, of necessity, to play multiple roles including those of public educator, historian, geographer, sociologist, cultural anthropologist, political and social scientist, and economist – to mention just a few.

In brief, when we are really good at what we do we are indeed reporters but also interpreters. And because of the grassroots connections we are privileged to have in this industry, we tend not to lose sight of the fact that the travel and tourism industry contributes directly to the bottom line of any destination. The commercial implications of this can of course make what we do an even greater challenge and problematic in that we may feel compelled to either present a “glowing report” or to not do the story at all.

And this is where the issues of objectivity and neutrality play a role.

At one point in my career I was working with the national news team of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the people who produce its flagship show The National. During a particular editorial meeting in which we were struggling to decide on the “lineup” for the project I was working on, and whether a certain troubling story had real value as a news story, or whether by emphasizing it we might risk indulging in sensationalism, one of editors spoke about the difference between being objective and being neutral.

I was rather surprised to hear him, a hard-core news journalist, say that although news journalists must strive to be neutral on the issue or issues behind the story, they could not be totally objective because they are also human beings; and thus always subject to the same emotional or affective elements of the story as the general public. And as the reporters who have “been there”, we are obliged on our return to present “a true account”, whether we are news or travel journalists.

And whereas news journalists strive to present a true account of the facts (the “who, what, where, when, and why” of the story), we travel journalists also seek to do the same, at least initially. However given the distinct nature of our medium, we often strive to give our readers, listeners, and viewers something more – our interpretation of the “sense of place” as we have experienced it. We also of course strive for accuracy but in so doing we are also in the position of internalizing in the mind’s eye of the reader a sense of authenticity.

And I believe that in this regard, we may actually lean slightly toward the medium of the novelist, as opposed to that of the news journalist, because our stories often emphasize the aesthetic elements of the destination – and the human theatre we see in it. And herein lie the fundamental elements of storytelling: character, characterization, conflict, rising and falling action, dénouement, and sometimes, a universal lesson.

Role models of eclectic journalism

In the field of human resources, the recognition and enhancement of what are referred to as “tranferrable skills” – the comprehensive skills that an individual possesses which allow her or him to work effectively in multiple fields of endeavour – has became increasingly important in the 21st century.

In today’s interconnected world, such skill sets as the all-important communications skills (verbal and written), the ability to project and predict outcomes, abstract thinking, and other related conceptual skills, are recognized as critical to the functioning of any organization that wishes to succeed in what many see as a constantly evolving “new world order”.

Such individuals tend to have a high degree of cognitive skills but at the same time are also able to express and process the affective components of “the story”. This creative “balanced brain” approach to problem-solving and task management is what allows such individuals to find their niche almost anywhere – in what is becoming in many ways a borderless world.

Jefferson Sackey, a multidisciplinary journalist

A journalist born and raised in Ghana in West Africa, Jefferson Sackey is the kind of broadcast journalist who finds multiple layers of meaning in the stories he does.

For example, his profile of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (a Ghanaian himself) in which Jefferson explores the vision of this charismatic and inspiring world leader, is a tribute to the kind of transcendent ethos that Annan represents, and which sustains human civilization. At one point, Jefferson quotes Annan: ‘‘You must listen to not only what is being said, but what is not said, which is often much more important.”

And in Jefferson’s own words, he explains why leaders like Kofi Annan are visionaries.

“What puzzled me was the attention Kofi Annan gave to the various sides of the conflict even after the session closed at midnight. From the little I saw, I came to agree with the fact that no one has done more than Kofi Annan to revitalise the UN.

After taking office as the seventh Secretary-General in January 1997, he managed in a very short time to give the UN an external prestige and an internal morale the likes of which the organization had hardly seen in its over fifty-year history, with the possible exception of its very first optimistic years.

His position within the organization has no doubt benefited from his having devoted almost all his working life to the UN. Experience in a bureaucracy is not always the best springboard for action and fresh approaches to the outside world, but Annan brought about both…. Kofi Annan figured prominently in the efforts to resolve a whole series of international disputes: the repercussions of the Gulf War, the wars in the former Yugoslavia and especially in Kosovo, the status of East Timor, the war in the Congo, and the implementation of the UN resolutions concerning the Middle East and “land for peace” just to mention a few.

On the basis of renewed emphasis on the Declaration of Human Rights, Annan gave his office a more active part to play as a protector of those rights.”

As what I will refer to as a “crossover” journalist, Jefferson tells stories, especially those with an African focus, that promote global understanding – surely a key objective of travel journalism.

To see a promotional video of Jefferson’s broadcast television show “International Assignment” click on the preceding link.

His documentary on “The Castro Years” is also indicative of the kind of “educational” backgrounder that has the “added value” effect of encouraging participatory travel.

Julia Bayly and travel as cultural anthropology

Julia is une femme à tout faire, a newspaper journalist, a travel writer, and a dog musher!

She is also an example of a journalist who understand implicitly the diversity of the travel experience and how the latter engenders a much broader understanding of world events. She is also the kind of journalist who encourages people to “go and look”; but at the same time she personifies the principle that looking is not enough – when you travel you must also engage.

In a recent podcast I did with Julia she said the following about the increasingly proactive and enlightened traveller in today’s marketplace:

“They want to do. They want to experience. They want to meet people … to become part of that which they are looking at. At which point they become someone who is looked at both by the others who are there to look and by the people they are visiting. The basis of cultural anthropology is about participant observation … and doing minimal harm.”

To hear the complete podcast, click on the preceding link.

Ian and Tonya Fitzpatrick celebrate the responsible traveller

By way of their online radio show and website, Ian and Tonya have created a public forum in which key issues that have implications for the travel and tourism industry are explored. In their roles as travel journalists they also explore the human values inherent in a destination, as well as the enduring values in human culture itself.

As they say on their site, “Responsible travelers are conscientious and wise travelers. They understand that we all share a common humanity and seek purposeful travel opportunities that are transformative and fun. Responsible travelers enjoy authentic travel experiences and leave positive footprints by fostering global citizenship and cross-cultural understanding.”

For more information on their show and their approach to travel journalism, see Travel’n On Radio.

For additional information related to this subject, see:

“An Irish Scholar’s Challenge to Travel Writers”

“Ottawa: Grace, Dignity, and a Delightful State of Affairs”

“Multidimensional Martinique: Where Landscape Shapes Culture”

“The Redundant Search for a National Narrative.”

“Travel Writing and Humanistic Culture: a blunted impact?”

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