One of the pleasures of being on holiday is picking up random books off bookshelves. I stayed at a rental apartment in Spain, in the attractive little village of Gaucin in Andalucia last week. (Regular readers will know I spent much of this summer researching for the Frommer's guide to Andalucia and I am getting to know the region well and to love it.)

The book I picked up was News from No Man's Land: Reporting the World by venerable old BBC Foreign Affairs editor John Simpson. It’s a bit old now – written as it was in 2008, but I found it fascinating, if a little verbose at times.
One section really stood out:

“If we see graphic pictures of the aftermath of a bombing... we assume the whole country is in turmoil. How many people know that you can have a superb holiday very cheaply in Sri Lanka and never even hear the distant sound of gunfire? Who knows that Colombia has some of the most beautiful resorts in South America? Who appreciates the sensational qualities of Iran as a country to travel around? Fortunately, for those of us who know the reality about these countries, not many...

Whilst the news writer looks for the extremes and reports them as overtly as possible to grab attention and keep it, for a serious travel writer I’d argue that context is utterly crucial. For a travel feature to be proper and appropriate, the context of the destination in question needs to be properly understood by the writer.

There are many times I have chosen NOT to write about a particular incident because I felt it was unrepresentative of the place as a whole and would offer a totally incorrect perspective.

Here’s a really great example from one of the most bizarre and memorable trips I have ever done:
I did a backpacker bus trip in the middle of dark, freezing winter from St Petersburg to Moscow in 1999 and wrote it up for the Guardian. You’ll see if you click the link to the piece... there’s no mention of anyone being mugged at gunpoint. This happened to Kylie on the first night. Nor do I describe how Janelle one of the other girls got so obliterated on vodka that she fell over, gashed her cheek so badly we could see her teeth through the hole it left and had to be stitched up in a scary local hospital – complete with cats wandering around the corridors.

Should I have done?

I don’t think so. Not because the Guardian wouldn’t have published it (though they may well not have done), nor because the tour operator would have hated me forever (quite possible, though I do know him well and he and his company are excellent). But because I know Russia quite well. I’ve been there, plenty. And whilst it’s a crazy place at times, you are highly unlikely to get hospitalised or mugged. No more so than in New York or London in my opinion. And... I believe my opinion is pertinent because I know Russia: I can give the points I make context. The newswriter would quite possibly have pushed the gory details about mugging and injury right to the top of their piece. After all, it's just news... a snapshot.

Simpson continues a little later on the same theme - kind of echoing this:

“The real problem with journalism is its selectivity. We separate out the interesting from the dull until every column inch is filled with exceptional cases... yet this selectivity can produce serious distortion... we could of course insert regular warnings, along the lines of ‘objects may be closer than they appear’ disclaimers on rear-view mirrors; but the best policy, it seems to me, is to inform people better, more often and at greater length about the world they live in.”

In other words, if everyone was as familiar as I am with Russia, they'd know that what happened on that trip was freakish. Out of context. And if that was the case, then I could have written about it.

This second quote I think also offers insight for travel editors. For them the temptation and pressure from their ad teams to just keep the features focussed on the good old favourites that lots of people want to visit and lots of companies wnat to buy ad space around is increasingly intense in these difficult financial times. But if we take our regular readers seriously as editors we should be prepared to feature the less popular places specifically for this need for balance.

As Simpson puts it to inform people better, more often and at greater length about the world they live in.

That’s a wonderfully laudable aim.

Do you think that the net is killing off these hugely valuable basic principles?

5 thoughts on “Objects may be closer than they appear

  1. I reckon all depends entirely what you're writing, who you're writing it for and the story you've been commissioned to write.

    If (as you say) you're trying to write something with a sense of place that is broadly representative of what readers can expect if they go there, then the mugging probably should stay out. If you're recounting a travel anecdote, then it goes in.

    Did my stories on St Kitts include the fatal accident in which two speeding motorcyclists crashed into the minivan? No - I was writing either in general about the island and/ or its sugar industry history.

    Has my story about being stranded on an island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef after getting on the wrong plane made it into print? Possibly a couple too many times - but the subject of the story has always been travel disasters rather than an idea of what visitors can expect if travelling between Bundaberg and Sydney.

    Similarly, the tale of border guards abusing prisoners at Lesotho's passport control didn't make it in because the story was about the wonders of the drive up the Sani Pass to that point. But the constant harassment on the streets of Marrakech did, because it is an integral part of the experience.

    Context is key.

  2. Hi David
    Thanks for your comment - completely agree. An understanding of your audience is crucial. The point I nearly made was that people seem to think nowadays that anyone can write about travel... stick up a blog and off you go. (ref your very amusing video piece last week - Would you be able to stick the link to that on a comment here please?) People fail to appreciate what really goes into writing a travel feature. A bit like the person who sings great karoake and assumes that they have the X-factor.

  3. You mean this link? http://www.grumpytraveller.com/2010/10/15/how-to-break-big-news/

    or the 'I want to become a travel writer' one that has done the rounds in triumphant fashion (credit: Ewen Bell) - http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/7327535 - ?

    Actually, I think anyone can write about travel. Just like anyone can sing and anyone can play football. The key difference is whether anyone will pay you to do it. And if someone's going to pay you to do it, then there are certain skills you have to practice and certain ways of doing things that you have to adhere to.

  4. Ha. I meant the second of those two. Anyone can write about travel eh? Yeah if you qualify it like that.

  5. A good contribution to the discussion on travel journalism and the challenges for those who tackle this for a career.

    It's a subtle point you make but critical, that the experiences we have while travelling are not always representative of the bigger scenario. As journalists we aim to provide an accurate impression, and leaving out a trip to the hospital is appropriate if that one experience might unfairly bias the overall impression.

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