Travel blogging (still) has a fact-checking problem

What’s my problem now?

If you’re new to this blog, what took you so long? Also, you may not know that I was a full-time, freelance travel writer for 13 years. This included many years researching and writing Lonely Planet guidebooks, which requires agonizing amounts of fact-checking, because if you don’t a whole bunch of people will not hesitate to flame you personally on multiple platforms.

Even if you get it right, but the information changes after the guidebook’s publication, you still get dragged and occasionally accused of doing your on-the-ground research from your couch. It’s super fun!

Way back in 2011, when we all still had hopes and dreams, I attended my first travel blogging conference. I was invited to be on a discussion panel about blogging best practices. Since I was in my LP author prime, I was assigned the topic of fact-checking.

Those were still the wild west days of travel blogging, but a concerning backlash had begun. It was becoming common knowledge that bloggers were dabbling in questionable SEO practices, publishing sponsored posts without a hint of a disclaimer, regurgitating all manner of nonsense found on Wikipedia and repeating demonstrably false stereotypes and myths about destinations. Travel blogging as a whole was teetering on the edge of credibility.

Flash to today. Travel blogging has overcome many of its shortcomings, partly due to Google bringing the hammer down on black-hat SEO and new regulations for disclosing sponsored content. However, as I learned recently, there still appears to be a popular, unconventional approach to fact-checking – not doing any.

The small kahunas

A couple weeks ago, I spent a considerable amount of time researching a two-part blog post featuring fun facts about 130 countries (including nine fake facts that I hid in there for people to find). Honestly, despite my zeal for fact-checking, I bit off way more than I could chew on that one and wouldn’t do it again.

During the many, many hours I spent Googling “fun facts about [insert country name],” I discovered a disturbing number of misstatements and some straight up falsehoods on travel blogs.

One good example is the myth that pistol dueling is still legal in Paraguay as long as both parties are registered blood donors. To be fair, this person cited what seems like a credible source, the Chicago Tribune, though the Tribune link they provided goes to a page that appears to have been taken down. Even Duke University fell for this one. But it’s not true. It may have been true back in olden times (the pistol dueling, at least – I can’t find anything about the blood donor requirement), but if you go back far enough wasn’t pretty much everything legal?

Another instance was the claim that little Slovenia has 90,000 bee keepers. The actual number is closer to 10,000, which is still a remarkable number of bee keepers for a country of two million people, but far short of 90,000.

The big kahuna

But the big kahuna fact-checking laugher I found during this exercise, and the inspiration for this post, is the following well-circulated factoid: “Panama is the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic from the same spot.”

Do you see the problem here? If you remember your third grade science lessons, you know that the Earth rotates eastward. This means, no matter what hemisphere you’re in or what season it is, the sun ALWAYS rises in the east. And, in case your geography is a little rusty, the Atlantic ocean is east of Panama. The sun has never risen over the Pacific ocean, as far as Panama is concerned, and it never will.

Unfortunately, the Embassy of Panama website seems to be largely responsible for the dissemination of this fake fact. Their exact phrasing is “Panama is the only country in the world in which you can see the sun rise in the Pacific Ocean and set on the Atlantic Ocean from the top of the highest point in the country, Volcan Baru.”

Now, it is true that one can watch the sun rise on the Caribbean and set on the Pacific in Panama, though as you can see from the animation below, doing so from atop Volcan Baru isn’t going to deliver particularly photogenic views. Nevertheless, someone (presumably in the Panama tourism bureau’s marketing department) decided to concoct a logic-challenging factoid, then a dozen travel bloggers came along and copy-pasted the statement without a second thought.

Before the “Well, actually…” guys get warmed up to leave a comment, let’s address the fact that Panama is geographically weird. It’s a sideways “S” shape. If we’re being extremely generous (or we’re a mustache-twirling, travel marketing evil genius), one can indeed watch the sun rise over Pacific-adjacent waters from, say, Pedasi, and (only just barely) set over Caribbean-adjacent waters from someplace like Colon.

But if we’re using that caliber of logic, I can stretch semantics to the absurd and say it’s possible to watch the sun rise over the Atlantic in Minnesota, because Lake Superior (eventually) touches Atlantic waters. But I don’t, because that’s silly.

My point is, though none of the travel bloggers cited below bothered to provide the flimsy supporting information explaining why, it’s indeed possible to contort the Pacific sunrise and the Atlantic sunset claim into truthiness.

But for the sake of maddening, pedantic argument, let’s say I’m wrong and every travel blogger below was in on the Volcan Baru geographic gimmick. As you can see in the image below, there’s a desperate sliver of plausibility if you watch the sun “rise” over Pacific waters while facing south and “set” over Caribbean waters while facing north from the Volcan Baru vantage point. But, even with the planet’s axis tilt taken into account, is that really watching the sun rise and set or are you just watching the sky get lighter and darker?

But, back to fact-checking

Whether or not the travel bloggers I cited below were knowingly sharing the impish, south-north mind-screw, a number of them simply repeated the first part of the faux fact without any elaboration. Were they in on the joke or just hurriedly dropping in content? The first two pages of Google search results for “Fun facts about Panama” are awash in examples of this.

This one, for example, says “Panama is the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic.” That’s it. End of statement. It doesn’t even include the “same spot” claim.

This one is the same: “Panama is the only country in the entire world where you are able watch the sunrise on the Pacific Ocean, and then see it set on the Atlantic Ocean, pretty spectacular!” This site isn’t a travel blog, but way to start confusing your kids at a young age, you guys. This is how flat-Earthers get started.

This one added a little detail, emphasizing the svelteness of the country, not the crucial geographic anomaly caveat, saying “Panama is the only place in the world where you can watch the sun rise on the Pacific Ocean and set on the Atlantic Ocean from the same spot. At the narrowest point of the country, just 80 kilometers (50 miles) separates the two oceans.” There’s no mention of Volcan Baru. They’re simply suggesting you can watch the sun rise and set over two oceans from one spot.

This one adds a little color, but is effectively the same statement: “Panama is the only country in the world where you can watch the sun rise on the Pacific coast and then set on the Atlantic coast. You can see this from the top of the highest point in the country, Volcan Baru at 3,474 m. However, to see sun rise and sun set in the same day it does mean waiting around for 12 hours!”

And here: “Panama contains the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic…from the same spot! At the country’s narrowest point, only 80 kilometers separates the Atlantic from the Pacific Ocean.” No mention of any geographical anomaly, just the misleading basic statement.

Same issue here: “You probably didn’t know that you can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic in Panama. How cool is that?” Did they actually mean what they thought they meant? We’ll never know.

And again here: “The sun rises and sets over two different oceans! Panama contains the only place in the world where you can see the sun rise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic…from the same spot! At the country’s narrowest point, only 80 kilometres separates the Atlantic from the Pacific Ocean.” Again, this seems to be highlighting the narrowness of the geography alone.

Aaaaaand here.

This one had the Panimanian tourism messaging version first, but corrected the post after someone pointed out the error in the comments. And this blogger rightly blamed the Embassy of Panama website for the confusion.

Leif, this is a lot of text for one relatively unimportant fake fact

While reading this, were you increasingly concerned that I went way too far down the rabbit hole for a relatively minor faux fact? Welcome to thorough fact-checking, folks! A willingness to court anal-retentive madness several times a day is a prized quality in fact-checkers. This is why prominent publications have dedicated, experienced fact-checkers on staff, rather than lumping those duties on the writer, editor or some intern.

Of course, at the end of the day there wasn’t any real harm done. Panama tourism got a whole bunch of people to talk about Panama (including me) and that’s all any marketing team ever wants. Any fact-checker worth their salt wouldn’t regard a travel blog post as a concrete, reliable fact checking source anyway, so there’s little likelihood that this puzzling statement would ever make it into a legit publication. (I haven’t checked the Lonely Planet Panama guidebook content, but if the editors are still as fastidious as they were in my LP days, that kind of malarkey wouldn’t have gotten past the first round of edits.)

Why does any of this matter?

Ultimately, this situation is just funny – if not a little disappointing. I say that because, from a fact-checker’s perspective, the Embassy of Panama’s website would normally be considered a solid source, so the dissemination of this fake fact could theoretically embarrass a prominent publication down the road, should some sleep-deprived editor find themselves on a tight deadline for their Panama destination profile.

Even good fact-checkers have bad days. (Et tu, Chicago Tribune?) That’s why you reconfirm at least once with a different, rock-solid source. Also, no matter who you are, publishing anything in a hurry is almost never a good idea.

I understand that bloggers are in a ceaseless, mad scramble to get content posted and there’s not much time for researching, fact-checking, grammar, engaging writing or thinking too much, but this nugget really got under my skin – to the tune of 1,500 words.

All I ask is that you just take a second to think about the stuff you’re writing, before you slap that “publish” button. Show your readers that you respect them by not repeating this silliness – or if you do, caveat the shit out of it, like I did above. Otherwise, you run the risk of some ex-travel writer insinuating you’re a ding dong on their dusty blog.