The recent fall of Jonah Lehrer from the heights of the New Yorker magazine for plagiarism has provided fodder for any number of journalism watchers and pundits lamenting the state of the Fourth Estate these days.
Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, took a position one might expect from a Pulitzer-winning former newspaper reporter and editor: Lehrer didn’t know how to “do journalism.” But as I read Fiedler’s column, something struck me that resonates for travel writing and how travel public relations professionals approach vetting travel writers.
Now, while there are undeniable travel journalists out there, for the most part travel writers are freelancers who range from the retired former (fill in the blank) who now travels extensively and writes about it to the bought-out newspaper travel editor who has moved into the next phase of a stories career to (lord help us) the suddenly all-powerful “mommy blogger.”
When vetting a travel writer for consideration for a press trip, it is not uncommon for a PR person attempting to gauge the return on investment of the cost of an “editorial research” trip versus the value of subsequent coverage to ask, “What are your outlets?” It’s equally not uncommon for the writer to then real off a list of media outlets that have published her work in the (sometimes distant) past.
The assumption is, that if the writer takes the trip and has several reliable outlets, that the story could get multiple “hits” and thus justify through the almighty “ROI” the cost of hosting the writer.
That is the point where travel PR practice and travel writing bump heads with Fiedler — self-plagiarizing. It’s one of Lehrer’s sins — Googling oneself and then quoting oneself from previous writings in “new” writings. As Fiedler notes, that not only is lazy and deceitful (as the reader expects to be written for, not at), it is a violation of copyright law. In other words, you can’t use the words you used in a story for one publication in a story in another publication. They used to be your words, but as soon as they were published, they became the property of the publication and fall under its copyright protection.
I don’t have any statistics about how often this kind of thing happens, though I suspect it happens with some regularity. Does it matter if it’s “just for a travel publication” and not for the New York Times? By Lehrer’s reckoning, no; by Fiedler’s, it does.
But that brings us to the whole question of whether travel writing is “journalism” — something most travel writers themselves would assert — now, whether they would agree that self-plagiarism is wrong might be a different matter. Should travel PR pros expect a writer to get placements for the same story in multiple publications as a condition for hosting on a press trip?
Should travel writing be held to the same standards as other forms of journalism? Should ethics be sacrificed to the exigencies of making a living as a freelance travel writer?