Does Truth Matter When Writers Constantly Promote?

Nov 012010
 

While at a doctor’s office last week, I read  an editor’s letter in Conde Nast Traveler, about the importance of telling readers the truth. I tore it out (sorry) and brought it to my desk to ponder.

I started out thinking her credo was noble, but then lost out to cynicism.

Editor Klara Glowczewska invoked the words of the founder in her editorial: “We are wholly independent. We pay our way. We have no hidden obligations. We have no higher obligation than the one to you: to provide truth in travel.”

This philosophy, she wrote, is even more relevant now, “with the proliferation on the Web and in other digital formats of travel advice from thousands of unexamined sources, a tide of unfiltered bits of data masquerading as reliable guidance and clamoring for our attention.” Translation: she doesn’t respect web writers.

She’s tough on freelancers. They can’t even fly at a “discounted rate.” “If we discover that a reporter has accepted favors while on assignment,” she writes, “…that person can no longer work for this magazine.” Traveler correspondents must always be anonymous, too. “If we were to accept favors, our views and recommendations would lack authority — and we pride ourselves on being authoritative,” the editor concludes.

Okay great. Now, how does this mission apply to the content? Therein lies the problem. All these ethics give way to relentless boosterism. It’s easy to be truthful if you’re only going to say nice things. And that is how our business works. We write about what we like, whether books, travel, food, or products. We promote.

Can you imagine the cover blurbs of Traveler if some of the real stories came out?

  • Where Not to Stay in Venice
  • Caribbean Islands to Avoid
  • Five Awful Days in Britain.

Who would advertise? Who would buy it? So really, how truthful is it when you don’t tell the whole story?

The bottom line is that we writers can function truthfully without getting all our expenses covered (even though we’d love that) and we don’t have to be anonymous. We go to conferences, press events, restaurant openings, and educational seminars put on by companies. It’s not a problem. Because we are almost always positive in our stories — extolling the greatness of a food truck, a baking technique, a restaurant, a chef — the stakes are very low.

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  30 Responses to “Does Truth Matter When Writers Constantly Promote?”

  1. Dianne, what I love about this post is that you made me think…think critically about what I read and what I write. You’ve really struck a nerve in me, in a very good way.

  2. Dianne –
    A thought that has frequently slipped through my mind is this : Would we even be reading about some of the places, products, and services if someone hadn’t offered some “bait” to a writer? Most of the things I read about seem to have pretty enthusiastic endorsements from the authors and whether they are compensated or not I often have no way of knowing. Now, I might write about the greatest lemonade I ever drank or even one that is at least good if I were a crazy lemonade kind of guy. But if you had read my lines or knew me at all you would know I really don’t drink lemonade – at all. So you would probably wonder why I am suddenly enamored of a particular variety of a drink that I don’t drink. Makes me wonder all the more strenuously about all these places that people go and stay, all the great meals that they eat, and the trains, planes and busses that get them there. Really? It was all just that great that you were inspired to sit down and tell the world about it? I am with you, – make room on the cynic’s bench! Well, maybe … I’ll have to just think about it some more while I sip this deelicious cuppa “somebody, anybody, everybody’s” great espresso. Just sayin….

    • It is a good question about how writers and editors decide about these places. I’m sure they deal with a relentless amount of p.r., then there’s word of mouth, plus their own research, plus reading other publications to see what the competition is covering.

      It’s not just the magazines. Bloggers are always promoting too — going to the best place, making the greatest cookies, finding the most ingenious kitchen tool.

  3. I actually think a magazine with articles like “The Worst Food in Florence” or “Do NOT ever stay here” would be quite useful and a wonderful counterpoint to the Best of articles. Kind of a version of Do / Don’t Do.

    • You mean you would read a whole issue of stories like that? I’m not sure if I could take it. Somehow we have an appetite for the positive.

  4. “If we discover that a reporter has accepted favors while on assignment that person can no longer work for this magazine.”

    OK. But is the magazine arranging free flights and/or discounted accomodation FOR the writer? If it’s not, and they’re still footing the bill for thousands of dollars in expenses for feature stories and hundreds (sometimes thousands) for Front-0f-the-Book pieces I wonder how they stay afloat. If they stay afloat by using writers who will kick in for their own expenses, then they may not be getting the best/most well-researched work And if that’s the case, they can hardly call themselves “authoritative”.

    This is probably me being cynical, but even big-name mags these days are not coughing up to cover expenses like they used to. In which case something has got to give (or is giving) somewhere.

    • The editorial implies that they pay full price for all expenses, and writers are not allowed to pay for anything. They must be one of the last magazines to be in this position, eh Robin? Does this mean that the other big-name magazines you allude to are not authoritative? They might have an issue with that.

  5. I don’t think it follows that if you’re only telling the good stuff, your honesty is compromised. Choosing which true things to say isn’t any kind of dishonesty; it’s discretion. Saying good things about something you hate would be a whole other story, and I’ve seen people do it for money.

    • I don’t think they say good things about a place they hate, but we’ll never know. Re discretion, I could see it if it was occasional, but not if it is relentless.

  6. I’m a relatively new food writer and as such have not been exposed to many editorial constraints, yet. I’m a contributing writer for a small press quarterly magazine and a food blogger (my own and guest).

    I’ve found editors will spin an article in a positive light, not leaving much room for objective commentary no matter what is written. Or maybe they’re being discreet, like Serene mentioned?

    I’m invited to many food and wine events and often struggle when said events offer poor food and/or service. How do I manage?

    • Aha! So your editors are putting a positive spin on your work, and eliminating the negative? I’m telling you, Maureen, it’s a conspiracy.

      Re the events, if you are covering them for a publication, you have to go with what your editor wants. For your own blog, of course, you can say whatever you like, as long as it’s fair and balanced.

  7. Great piece you made a number of really great points. I accept comps and discounts, because sadly my editors do not have money to pay my expenses. But I do a lot of research, I disclose, and I try to be as balanced as I can. Even when I like something I will often look for a negative if for no other reason to show I am capable of being critical not just a Pollyanna who “loves everything.” Then again, I’m not writing for Conde Nast Traveller. I wonder given what they pay how many writers can afford to stay in $800 a night suites and dine at 5 star restaurants?

    • Thanks Amy. Balance is good. Glad to read that you use it.

      So you say in the pieces you write that you got a discounted rate or a comp? Wow. I imagine your editors would take it out. On your blog, of course, you can be more open.

      Re Conde Nast, writers can afford the big ticket items, because they pay all expenses. I suppose you query an idea for a story, and if they like it, they set it up.

  8. I don’t take the review seriously in magazines that only do positive reviews. We have excellent local free papers (Seattle Weekly, The Stranger) that do reviews which share both positive and negative impressions. If I happen to skim something like Traveler, my mental filter just has trouble taking it seriously, for exactly the reasons you mention. Seriously, at every place they recommend, not even the slightest thing went wrong?

    I faced a similar issue when I used to do restaurant reviews on my blog. I want to work more in the restaurant industry, so I didn’t want to burn any bridges by saying anything really bad. So I would only review restaurants that I could say mostly positive things about (though I would still include any small negatives that occurred). I soon concluded that even this wasn’t sufficiently honest for my taste, so I’ve dropped restaurant reviews altogether, and just focus on publishing recipes.

    • Hurray! How wonderful to stop reviewing because you didn’t want just positive reviews on your blog. Yet for every one of you, there are hundreds more who believe they should only review when they have something positive to say. I’ve had this argument here with people, more than once.

      Keep in mind that the pieces in Conde Nast Traveler and other publications aren’t even reviews. Just boosterism. And we do it to, on our own blogs, in our own pieces.

  9. We Pay For Your Shipping on order levitra cream orders.

    Objectivity is never as clear as Conde Nast Traveler proposes in its editor’s letter. Suppose those very same objective writers are advised on where to travel by chefs, sommeliers, or well-known restaurateurs through their background reporting. It’s not unusual for chefs or somms to be sent on paid trips through Italy or France to learn about the food and wine of the region. And when they’re back at their restaurants, no one questions why they are pouring wine from Friuli or serving cheese from the Loire. Instead, we write about it.

    • Interesting, hadn’t considered that angle, Katy. Who’s paying for those trips? Why, the producers of the product, no doubt.

  10. Maybe it’s just me, but I read magazines like Conde Nast Traveler in order to get lost in the fantasy of alluring and exotic places that I might not ever get the chance to visit in real life. Similarly, I read magazines like Saveur for the same reasons—to get lost in the world of someone else—to get lost in someone else’s “food world,” if you will.

    Like Dianne (and others) have mentioned, how—and why—would a publisher print a magazine that didn’t engage readers in an overall positive way. As trite as this might sound on the surface, “fantasy sells.” If that’s the case, then how can we ever really judge the “truthfulness” of someone’s idealized version of a travel or a food experience? And perhaps the better question would be….should we?

    • Yes, fantasy sells. Sure, I like to fantasize going to these places too.

      But after a while, it gets boring, because every article is about the “best” place, or the “best” food. It’s good to mix it up. That’s why I loved Saveur’s October issue (ironically titled “Greatest Meals Ever,”) full of personal stories showing that life is beautiful and complicated. You got lost in their food world, I hope, because of good storytelling, not because of boosterism.

  11. Thank you, thank you. Once again, you take a sharp scythe to the industry, not in order to eviscerate, but in order to reveal underlying truths.

    Two points:

    1. I don’t interpret the editor’s letter as saying she doesn’t trust freelancers. I interpret it more as buyer beware because the “unexamined sources” she refers to could actually have an undisclosed, vested interest. In other words, property owners, or marketers with a financial stake in a hotel’s, or restaurant’s, success may be masquerading as independent reviewers online, and readers may be blissfully unaware that the wool is being pulled over their eyes. Wasn’t this one of the issues with last year’s Yelp controversy? That competing restaurants would excoriate other eateries under cover of anonymity?

    2. That said, I *love* that you hold a mirror up to the industry’s own hypocrisy by pointing out that it generally only highlights the positive. You are a rare brave soul for sticking your neck so far out, and I commend you for your fearlessness.

    • Oh gosh, Cheryl, you’re making me blush. It’s not much of a risk, really. The editor of CNT is not going to come after me with a hatchet. Probably will never even see this post.

      Excellent point about scurrilous experts holding forth online. You are absolutely right that she should be skeptical.

  12. Fascinating. I’m also in the group that believes “Where Not To Stay In Venice” would be a great story. At the PI, I used to run reviews of new products (here’s one: http://www.seattlepi.com/food/359143_newproducts16_copy.html), and I always tried for a mix of loves and hates, because shouldn’t reviews tell you where NOT to waste your money as well as where you should spend it?

    Side note: While our full-size restaurant reviews at the PI were what you would expect (full accounting of pros and cons), there was a general policy of not running negative short “Cheap Eats” reviews. The logic was that we gave restaurants a thorough look in the full-size reviews, visiting three times, sampling multiple dishes, etc., while “Cheap Eats” relied on a single visit. The editors didn’t want to unfairly brand a place with a bad reputation based on one minimal visit, so if we didn’t like it we would just pass on reviewing it. I disagreed with that approach.

    Funny (or not) — the thinking then was that newspaper reviews were so influential, we might be unfairly killing someone’s business if we had just caught them on an off day.

    • Hah. I wonder if any publication would be interested in a story like that, Rebekah. It would make a good blog post, at least.

      When doing reviews, it makes sense to do a mix of loves and hates, and your editor’s policy on the Cheap Eats column was reasonable. Here, these are feature articles. Sure, there’s a mix, but at this publication it has more to do with story sizes, profiles vs. destinations, etc. and keep it all positive.

  13. This is a GREAT discussion. How many trips have we writers been on where we have to pick the 20 minutes in the entire week when we had a sublime experience, as opposed to a ho-hum, or downright disappointing one. This is why one of my favorite books is Chuck Thompson’s Smile While You are Lying: Confessions of A Rogue Travel Writer. Tired of leaving the best bits (and often the bad experiences make for better reading, not to mention balance) off the page, he talks about the actual experience of many of his travel assignments. It’s brilliant. Now, wouldn’t it be great to do a special magazine issue or book compilation of food writer’s accounts of truly horrible meals or UNSAVORY experiences while trying to just get the article my editor is hoping for…I’ve got some doozies

    • Great idea, Jennifer. I’ve seen a paperback like that, on worst travel trips of all time. Maybe you could do a compilation!

  14. Ah, yes, I feel the pressure to be nice and positive online even more than in life. I imagine it’s the same thing in print.
    Like today, I baked a cake posted on a very popular food blog. I read the reviews before, they were all raving about it. But I am not impressed one bit with the cake. Of course I will not mention it to anyone. (Only to my dinner guests…) Why should I be the bad guy when everyone else is so nice?
    And back to the point of your post :) I believe that, as a result of those positive reviews the people involved develop relationships, business and personal, (maybe not in Traveler but in other publications), so how can they be objectives? There’s a contradiciton/conflict of interests.

    • Exactly. Are you going to go on her blog and tell her you were not impressed? No. We all have to get along.

      By the “people involved” do you mean the writers? They go on to other stories, so I’m not sure what you mean by developing a relationship.

  15. The problem with food writing, and with travel writing, is that the professions have traditionally been so corrupt. And while book critics get galleys to review in the mail, and music critics can count on the philharmonic for two on the aisle, food and travel guys have to be scrupulously, scrupulously honest if they are to have any credibility at all. Conde Nast Traveler was founded as a magazine that shunned freebies, and it has always, I believe, been the one travel magazine that never sought discounts or comps. To which I can only say: bravo. (I’ve never written for them, btw, although I’d be happy to. They have their own, rather peculiar, crew.) A certain asceticism goes with the gig, ironic as it may seem.

    It is tempting to go on the freebie circuit; to travel first-class, attend splendid hosted dinners, and let tourist boards shepherd you to wonderful places. But you can’t – not once, not ever. Integrity is like virginity: you can only lose it once. And integrity can be freaking expensive. Ask the people who have been with me when I insist on paying for a $400 dinner for which the proprietor has already torn up the check. Food is a very small town.

    • Yep, and after a while, you get a reputation as someone who likes the freebies, and then you’ve got to deal with that.

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