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The Troubling State of Authenticity in Travel Journalism

Taj Bates

I ran across an article today wherein the writer listed numerous reasons she doesn’t think families should waste their time and money going to Walt Disney World — despite the fact she’s never been to Disney World.

Like really? Really?

I spent four years studying journalism in college. The ethics and tenets of journalism run deep in my veins. And these tenets are ever-present whether I’m writing a hard news story or a cotton candy fluff one.

At The YOLO Guide to Travel, we’re all about authenticity. Our contributors have been to the places they write about. They’ve had a diversity of travel experiences that inform the tips and advice they share. Some are professionally-trained writers, others are amateurs. Each of them have unique points of view and insightful travel stories to tell.

We don’t publish contributed pieces carte blanche. Everything is edited and meticulously fact checked before publication. Last year, while editing an article, I dug up and watched a television episode to verify that the quote the writer had attributed to that episode was correct. It wasn’t (she did it from memory), and I edited the article accordingly.

Last month, a different writer submitted an article to us. When we circled back with her to make a few edits, she replied that the piece needed to be published as-is because it had already been approved by a local vendor she was working with. The piece itself didn’t mention any vendors. But we were quick to inform her that we are a journalism organization and doesn’t publish pieces that require sign-off by a third party. The fact that she thought this would be acceptable is comically appalling.

But the sad truth is, there is no shortage of travel publications and blogs where pay-for-play content is the norm, lacking any disclosure that the content has been sponsored by a brand or company marketing department.

You’d be surprised how many pieces are written by PR departments and reprinted word-for-word by respectable publications under the guise of being an original piece of journalism.

Or how many travel pieces in well-known publications are penned and edited by people who barely travel.

As a travel expert and author who’s journeyed on six continents on my own dime, I can easily spot the B.S.

There is a very real difference in writing about a place based on Google searches and pretty, pretty pictures versus experiencing it yourself, in living color. And there’s a marked difference in experiencing it yourself using hard earned money from your own bank account.

Well-trained journalists who get their travel expenses covered by a brand or company in exchange for coverage can still be honest, objective and discerning. But such people are few and far between.

Which is why publications like The New York Times travel section only publish essays wherein the trip expenses were paid out of the contributing writer’s own pocket. Oh, and that the writer actually travelled to the place they’re writing about.

Speaking of Which, Back to Disney World…

I used to work on digital projects at Disney and have been to Disney World, in Florida, and Disneyland, in California, numerous times. While I like the parks, I’m not a Disney Parks enthusiast.

I’d rather devote my travel funds to a cruise on the actual Amazon or bayou. But oh how I love the pun-filled ride that is Jungle Cruise.

If I’m in the mood for roller coasters and thrill rides, a Disney park wouldn’t be my first stop. But I do have a special place in my heart for The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

I would never, ever say Disney World is a waste of time and money for families or Disney loving adults — especially if you’ve never been before.

The Disney World Resort is unique. There really is no place like it in the world. It’s huge, with hundreds of things to see and do. Some of its attractions are incredibly creative, magical and mesmerizing. And its Cast Members are expert at putting on fantastic parades and fireworks shows.

Is Disney World pricey? It certainly can be.

Is it hot as Hades in summer? Yes. Miserably and humidly so.

Will some of the ride wait times have you seeing red? Does some of the overpriced food taste like cardboard? Will you be constantly enticed to buy cheaply-made Disney souvenirs that won’t last long? Yep. Yep. And yep.

But there are loads of blogs and forums on the interweb with tips and insider secrets on how you can Disney World on a budget; when’s the best time to go; how to ride more and wait less; where to find delicious eats and treats; etc.

In my travel guide to Los Angeles and Southern California, I include tips and secrets to doing Disneyland like a pro that are applicable to Disney World, too.

Authentically Yours

We live in a day and age when more and more travel lovers are seeking authentic travel experiences.

As such, travel journalism, in publications large and small, should strive to be authentic as well.

Here at The YOLO Guide to Travel, we haven’t been everywhere and we haven’t seen everything. But you can rest assured that if we’re talking about a destination in the first-person, or debuting a new destination guide in this app, we have been there and done that.

And we will be sharing honest tips and insights with you about that place and loads of others, so you can experience the world’s treasures for yourself, in real life!

If you have a travel tip or story you’d like to share, let us know.