Healing the Disconnect: Improving Journalism and Tourism Reporting by Ron Mader

related: communication, travel, media
editing: headlines

Compartmentalization is giving way to integration, unsustainable development to sustainable practices, mass tourism to ecotourism and so on. Travelers and locals are becoming more demanding and for this fact alone there is a great need to improve environmental journalism and ecotourism reporting.

Travel guidebooks are changing. The Social Web is bringing out quality reporting and innovation.

How to heal the disconnect

Improving communication should be our number one priority. Not surprisingly, it's on the Planeta's wishlist for sustainable travel.

It does not requires an us-versus-them attitude. How do we connect the circle that unites readers-travelers-locals-writers-travel companies-social activists-educators-tourism officials? Do journalists covering travel with an interest in sustainability and ecotourism issues have a reliable and informed contact within the tourism ministry or pr office?

One of the frequent discussion threads during the 2001 MET Conference is the value of local reporters versus parachute journalists. Why don't we write more about the places where we live? Mind you, it's not just journalists who have trouble working locally. How much do international ecotourism organizations or conservation groups work in their own backyard?

Where is the press coverage of failed development initiatives? These topics lack the sex appeal of a cruise ship disaster, and even that's poorly told. I don't believe it is the role of the media to play the eternal critic, but it is our job to pay attention. Publications need to report failure and success.

In the dialogue after the Media, Environment and Tourism Conference, another idea has come up -- that media outlets, including newspapers and magazines, should hire editors in the travel section who are versed in sustainability.

As we cover the globe, we need to be more engaged in our own localities and more demanding of the experiences in the places we visit. If there is a disconnect, let's find a way to heal it.

Recent History

In 2002 -- the International Year of Ecotourism -- 'ecotourism' was a buzzword, undefined in most newsroom dictionaries. Five years later and things are improving. Many journals are not diligent with the term 'ecotourism.' It can mean anything from a community lodge to a jet ski operator. Too often editors allow their advertisers to define the word, but worse, most editors simply don't care. The result -- definitions are plenty.

I've chastised several colleagues for referring to golf courses as "ecotourism" simply because the courses were green. This is not to imply a disdain for golf courses, but rather the need for distinction. Worse than greenwashing is when the mainstream media simply dodges stories.

Case Studies

Incident: In 1997 a Norwegian cruise ship literally plowed over a reef offshore Cancun. The story received little press in Miami -- the cruise ship's home port. Could the reason for the absence of such stories have anything to do with the advertisers? These accounts are some of the most lucrative for the largest dailies and magazines. Editors and publishers may argue that travel writing is escapism. If so, readers need to demand more from their publications.

There is one other attitude at play -- editors aren't sure where to place these environmental/travel stories.
When it comes to stories such as the negative environmental impact of cruise ships, editors debate whether to play it as a travel feature or as hard news. Too often, papers ignore this type of story as one that editors can ignore since it lies 'out of the box.'

MEDIA COLLAPSE

Nothing is more frustrating than the demise of environmental media after it flourished at the beginning of the 1990s. The great collapse occurred only a few years after the 1990 Earth Summit. Magazines and newsletters such as Whole Earth Review, Garbage, Texas Environmental News, Environment Watch: Latin America and Mexican Environmental Business disappeared.

In travel media we witnessed a similar collapse. Avalon stopped cancelled the entire 'Adventures in Nature' guidebook series and other specialized books catering to the ecotourist are no longer stocked.

The OAS-funded Destination Management Services websites for Central and South America disappeared and defaulted on payments to writers and editors (myself included). Other projects pulled their own plug, including the Green Arrow Guide.

New York Times

The NYT has published several poor articles about ecotourism, including the 2006 feature Buzzword of the Year: Eco-tourism. It is disappointing that the Times is neither consistent with its coverage nor its spelling of the word 'ecotourism.'

Christian Science Monitor

The Christian Science Monitor published its diatribe When Ecotourism Kills that put the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Chile (instead of Ecuador).

Proposal

Planeta.com would like to team up with local and national governments to convene round table dialogues as suggested during the Media, Environment and Tourism Conference. These dialogues should begin online, move to a physical space (ideally a tourism conference) and follow the progress online for at least six months.

We encourage readers to contribute financial support to open journalism, particularly trusted and independent voices.

Foundations and development agencies should hire qualified reporters and photographers to provide public documentation of responsible travel and ecotourism without being the project cheerleader. Guaranteeing independence is the only way to insure the integrity of the reporting.

Author

Ron Mader is the ecotourism and Latin America correspondent for Transitions Abroad and host of the award-winning Planeta.com website.

BuzzwordBingo

Compassion - Empathy - Healing - Health - Meditation - Mindfulness - People - Platinum Rule - Reconciliation - Well-Being

Response

At times over the last couple of years I've felt that I've been overlooking current research as there seems to have been fewer studies, articles, etc. coming out on ecotourism or related topics. That's when I came across your article 'Healing The Disconnect: An Overview of Ecotourism Reporting.' It went a long way to explaining to me why it feels like there has been a drop off in new material on ecotourism – there has been! I think there are some lessons here for promoting our businesses and books by learning what key words and messages work (or don't work) with the media.
- Carol Patterson

Recommended Listening

The ethics and difficulties of travel journalism - With travel sections in newspapers and magazines generally getting smaller and smaller, can you produce good travel writing that both pays the bills and isn't compromised by the influence of travel companies and tourism boards?

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Photos
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