One of the most enviable junkets I’ve ever heard of landed in the lap (palette?) of a food-writer friend. The sojourn: an “educational” trip to France to sip, nibble and sightsee. The host: a trade development group tasked with the mission to expand awareness of champagne.
For my friend, the most remarkable aspect of the trip wasn’t the high life, it was that the host had zero expectations of coverage.
In the quid-pro-quo predicate that defines sponsored trips, no-strings-attached excursions are harder to find than a $20 bottle of Dom Perignon. Explicit or implied, the obligation to write about the host is the norm and complicates the offer.
Just how bad can this pressure get? Consider the case of an Asia-based journalist who made a quick trip to Tokyo, courtesy of a big retailer, to do an architectural review of a new venue.
Within days, the host and its hirelings began to strong-arm the journalist, her assigning editor, and other staff to preview the piece and push for edits before and after it posted online.
In reality, most junkets fall somewhere in between the heaven of free bubbly and the hell of stalking. Making the call to go or not comes down, roughly speaking, to the balance of two variables: access and outlet.
Access: Can I get there?
The question of access is the easier factor to adjudicate. Could you get to the site via conventional means on your own? This may be a question of money, logistics, or both.
On rare occasions, media outlets will cover travel (do ask). But some freelancers choose to self-fund their travel, through grants or by betting they will sell enough stories.
The more difficult aspect, often, is securing access to special sites.
A few years ago, while I was on staff at BusinessWeek, a industry group invited me to present at a conference in Scotland. The trip included a visit to offshore wind, marine energy and oil facilities in the North Sea.
Even with a travel budget, BusinessWeek couldn’t have covered the cost of this trip, and there was no way I would have been able to wrangle helicopter and boat access to remote industrial facilities.
The sponsored trip made it possible, and delivered more reporting notes in three days than I might have garnered in weeks of phone reporting.
Outlet: Will my editor balk?
The next problem is more nuanced. Does accepting a junket make your story unwelcome at certain outlets?
BusinessWeek had a black-and-white ethics policy: journalists could accept no travel. In the case of Scotland, the speaker invitation opened a loophole that made it okay.
Traditional news outlets including the New York Times and Chicago Tribune have similar zero-tolerance rules about accepting travel, both for staff and for freelancers.
But a twilight zone of junket practices exists in some beats, where journalists and outlets have little choice but to accept junkets, without formally acknowledging the deal.
I understand the reason for these high-minded rules, but am hardly alone in finding them ridiculous. They’re not only arbitrary by beat and publication; they belittle reporters’ ability to recognize and parse out the influence of access.
So you’re going: Best trip practices?
If a junket meets your goals, work with the sponsor and would-be editors to be as transparent as possible, as soon as possible, to make the most of the trip:
Do you have an assignment? Be crystal clear with the host if you don’t have anything lined up. If you can’t guarantee coverage and they rescind the offer, consider it a blessing in disguise. “There have been a few cases where trips were offered, but I’ve passed on them because I didn’t want to feel beholden to any companies,” tech writer Alice Truong wrote to me.
Be upfront on funding. Tell your editor during the early discussions, as well as in the formal pitch and with your submission, who’s paying for the trip. Make it transparent in the final article, with a brief mention, that your trip was funded by whatever company, trade organization, foundation, or the like.
Offer input. Junket schedules are often so overbooked that there’s scant time to process the rush of material. Contribute ideas or suggestions before–and during–the trip to get what you need. Make the effort to get off the bus for an un-managed look, smell, and feel of the environment you’re touring. “Smart PR people get it and are happy to help journalists pursue their own story elements during trips,” travel journalist Eric Hiss wrote.
Keep in mind there are other sources for travel funds. Foundations, universities, and professional societies are funding travel for independent journalism and research. These grants can be more flexible, but demand more advance work.
The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) has supported investigative missions with grants of up to $3,500 through their Fund for Environmental Journalism. (Next deadline July 15.) Other outfits offering fewer-strings-attached travel funding include the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the European Geosciences Union.
For all their prickly aspects, I remain a fan of junkets. They may disrupt my deadlines and they can feel over-packed and ethically fuzzy. But all of the handful of trips I’ve accessed—to Scotland, Israel and Utah—have left me with deeper understanding and on-the-ground know-how I could not have gathered otherwise.
On a final note, I’ve found that one of the best–and least-expected–rewards of junkets are the friends made en route. Travel is a bonding experience, all the more so on these specialized trips, which tend to attract kindred spirits.
The ethics of junkets remain a real concern, but as with so much else in journalism today, acting responsibly and transparently offers a clear way through.
Photos by Alan S. Moore and Adam Aston.