Short travel industry memories?

By Bruce Piper

There’s a popular myth which claims that goldfish have an attention span of just three seconds, meaning that every time they do a lap of their little bowls it’s like discovering a whole new world. It’s actually untrue, with scientists having shown that the colourful aquatic creatures can remember some things for as long as six months.

What’s that got to do with the travel industry, I hear you ask? I raise the issue of fishy forgetfulness in the context of the last couple of months, which have seen mainstream media turn on travel agents and the cruise sector with overwhelming savagery. Initially it was the nightly blow-by-blow coverage of the Diamond Princess, followed by the demonised Ruby Princess and the unprecedented order banishing all foreign-owned cruise ships from local waters. The fact that international travel, by air or ship, was identified as the key source of COVID-19’s rapid spread, certainly hasn’t helped and has contributed to the overwhelming negativity exhibited by many outlets.

And then there was the rising tide of resentment about Flight Centre’s controversial cancellation fees, followed by a backflip which led the casual observer to the conclusion that all the work done by travel consultants was in fact worthless. All covered in breathless detail by TV, radio and print journalists who seemed to be falling over themselves to join the feeding frenzy, without checking the other side of the story, or taking any care or consideration of whether they were tarring the entire industry with the same brush. I’ve lost count of the number of times cruise ships have been described as “petri dishes” cultivating yucky germs, or the repeated epithets describing all travel agents as money-grubbing lowlives who are deliberately refusing to pay back customers from the supposed mountain of cash they’re sitting on from prepaid travel.

All of the major commercial TV networks could be accused of unbalanced reporting of these issues in recent weeks, but there’s been some particularly egregious examples from Channel Nine, where the tabloid-style gutter journalism of A Current Affair and 60 Minutes has repeatedly raised industry hackles. Not to be outdone, Channel 10’s 10Daily published a deeply uninformed article titled “Why All Cruise Ships Should Be Buried At Sea” – and there are plenty of other examples too, including a Channel 7 expose on the supposed “police raids” of the Ruby Princess.

While nobody would ever dispute the importance of media as a pillar of our society, in these days of social amplification and online publishing it seems particularly easy for traditional values of balance and fairness to vanish out the window in the race to have the most click-baity headline – because rather than truth, it unfortunately now seems to be all about clicks, sensation and online followers rather than actually informing readers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in the media too and I do understand the tightrope that these journalists are walking. There is relentless pressure to outdo the competition, and the main metric of measurement is Google Analytics which doesn’t discriminate on the basis of truth or falsehood, but just counts impressions whether bad or good.

However, while we’re currently in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, it will be intriguing to see what the approach of the industry is to these media companies when they come cap-in-hand for advertising and promotional dollars once the tempest starts to lift. With Channel Nine being particularly brutal, will travel industry marketers make the connection between A Current Affair and The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald, which are, after all, part of the same company? Those newspapers’ popular Traveller weekend supplement, as well as the Financial Review’s Sophisticated Traveller, were placed on hiatus right at the start of the pandemic, and some in the industry are speculating that Nine Publishing may face a boycott from suppliers who have been heavily bruised by the negative coverage.

Media is a difficult landscape to negotiate in these disruptive days, even before the hammer-blow to the economy dealt by COVID-19. Travel and tourism have helped prop up the bottom lines of TV, print and radio outlets particularly in recent years, in contrast to many other sectors where almost all the advertising has shifted to the online giants such as Google and Facebook.

My question is, will we remember which outlets were so eager to bite the hands that had formerly fed them as soon as there was a little bit of blood in the water? Or will the industry, like the purported goldfish, take no time at all to forget the beating we’ve received, and open its collective wallet to keep those journalists in the style to which they’ve become accustomed?

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