Earlier this year, after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Cruise Vessel Safety and Security Act, a congresswoman proclaimed that the legislation would make Americans safer.

"For far too long, American families and particularly young women have unknowingly been at risk when signing up for cruise vacations," its sponsor, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), said in a statement. "The passage of this legislation will not only help recent victims of cruise crimes and offer them enhanced protection, but will help [prevent] further crimes from happening."

It took several years of Senate hearings on cruise ship safety and negotiations with cruise victims rights groups and CLIA to reach the final wording of the bill, which requires cruise lines to be more transparent in reporting crime and to comply with new security and surveillance measures.

It came after what many Americans had come to believe was a rash of missing cruise passengers, sexual assaults and cover-ups by the cruise lines. It's an impression created and nurtured by the news media.

A prime example was the disappearance of George Smith, the honeymooner who went missing from a Royal Caribbean International ship in May 2006. It served as fodder for weeks of sensational reporting and outraged opining by journalists.

"Doesn't that bother you, as a lawyer, that your client is part of an industry that has gotten so out of control with crime they've got to have congressional hearings?" CNN Headline News host Nancy Grace asked a corporate legal counsel for Royal Caribbean during a live, on-air interview.

Indeed, if one were to base personal knowledge of the cruise industry solely on the news and talk programs that have devoted hundreds of hours to cruisers going overboard and to reports that dubbed the gastrointestinal norovirus the "cruise ship virus," cruise ships would seem little more than iniquitous vessels festering with disease and delinquents.

Frequent cruisers and journalists familiar with the cruise industry know this is not the case. But only 19% of the American public has ever cruised, so most people know more about cruising from the nightly news and 24-hour cable news networks than from personal experience.

Their ignorance is shared by most reporters, as well.

"A lot of the people doing the coverage don't have direct experience with cruising," said Brittany Duff, an assistant professor of advertising at the University of Illinois College of Media who specializes in consumer behavior. "They employ selective attention to any information they see and go on self-perpetuating what they have seen."

Nor do they apply standard qualifiers to their news reports.

"When people cover the airline industry's problems, they will still add something like 'It's actually safer to fly than to drive,' because they have experience on airplanes," Duff said. "Once you have experience, you rely on it."

Yet, by almost any standard, crime on cruise ships is extremely low.

In a 2007 congressional hearing, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), cited written FBI testimony that there had been a total of 207 incidents reported by cruise lines that year during a period in which nearly 4.4 million passengers had cruised on CLIA-member lines.

Fewer than .01% of passengers reported any kind of crime, numbers that were so low as to cause suspicions that the cruise lines were failing to report some crimes.

Yet, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Wayne Justice told the committee, "From the Coast Guard's overall maritime security perspective, we have no evidence to suggest that there is significantly more [crime] or more serious crimes affecting U.S. nationals onboard cruise ships than indicated by the reporting data."

Or, consider that even though Las Vegas suffers the highest suicide numbers in the nation, Nancy Grace hasn't sounded the alarm about the dangers of staying in Las Vegas hotels -- or, for that matter, the likelihood that young adults will be sexually assaulted during spring-break getaways.

"Thirteen million people cruise every year without falling off," said Anita Dunham-Potter, a cruise journalist and MSNBC.com's cruise ombudsman. "There's a 99.99% chance that [a cruiser] will be fine. ... There is far more rape during spring break in hotels, and they don't go after the bars that serve them. There's a double standard."

So why the bad rap? Some media experts argue that cruise is but one of many industries and businesses that get picked on.

"When an outrageous story happens, it gets a disproportionate amount of coverage compared to the many cruises that go off without a hitch," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "But it is also not that often that airplanes sit on the tarmac for hours and hours, but it happens and it started legislation."

Thompson noted that every day, news editors choose from among thousands of possible stories to cover. There are countless crimes committed in America, and generally a missing child or report of spousal abuse is too mundane to make the cut.

In fact, it is possible that the relative scarcity of crime on cruises makes the crimes that do occur an appealing story.

"Anything that breaks through and makes national news has to have a couple notches of the strange," Thompson said. "Someone at a luxury hotel who is despondent and jumps off, and someone on a cruise ship who is despondent and jumps off, if I'm a news editor, the cruise makes it a more interesting story. People commit suicide a lot. A hotel is a building, and it's high. Jumping off a ship you don't hear about every day.

"That's privileging one story over the other, but in a relatively predictable way. That's what the news is all about."

This is true even for news organizations that cover the cruise industry in depth, because the fact is that sensational sells.

At this publication, for example, the Most Read article on TravelWeekly.com on Jan. 15 was not about the travel industry's efforts to help Haiti but a short, week-old story headlined "Employee's wife jumps off Royal Caribbean ship."

"When you cover something so overtly negative, you get a lot readers," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic. "But media outlets do a disservice not just to the industry but more importantly to travelers when they don't offer the whole story. And I think that's a problem, often."

The mission of Bob Sharak, CLIA's executive vice president of marketing and distribution, is simply to shine a positive public light on cruising. And, in fact, Sharak says, most coverage of the cruise industry is positive.

"Quantitatively, as we track press clippings, the tonality of the media that writes about us overall is positive," he said. "That positive message is focusing on things such as the new ships, the innovations, destinations, value and the experience."

But that coverage, he said, tends to be what the industry gets from travel journalists. It's the broadcast news programs and A-sections of the newspapers that tend to focus more on the critical and negative issues in cruising.

"We receive disproportionate attention of both positive and negative news," he said. "If you look at cruise as a percentage of travel, we are pretty small. But we garner a big chunk of the news attention.

"That's because of our product and what we're doing -- our growth, the new ships and the excitement that we generate about the product."

Journalists who focus on cruise agree that cruising gets more than its fair share of negative coverage because so few people in the U.S. media have ever actually been on a cruise.

"Ninety-eight percent of the mainstream consumer media wouldn't know a cruise from a hole in the ground," said Spud Hilton, the travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Hilton said cruising makes news when there's a "biggest ship in the world" introduction, or when negative things occur, such as someone falling off a ship, an outbreak of norovirus or relatively minor disasters like a fire or a rogue wave.

"Since a superlative ship only shows up once every couple of years and those other things, combined, happen at least twice a year, the collective public memory is always going to retain the bad news," he said.

The result of that, he said, is that people with no context think those negative occurrences are common.

"I cringe sometimes when I see stories about the cruise industry on television, in particular," said Gene Sloan, who covers cruising for USA Today and oversees the paper's Cruise Log website. "There definitely is a lot of misinformation out there on such things as norovirus outbreaks on ships. Readers often are left with the impression that outbreaks of stomach illness on ships are quite common, when they're actually quite rare. Ditto with major crimes such as a murder."

Sloan said that part of the problem is how few mainstream news outlets have reporters who cover cruising as a regular beat. USA Today might be the only one, he said. And as the number of reporters covering travel in general keeps falling to cost-cutting, he said, this is only becoming truer.

"The result is that context is missing in many stories on cruising and, more generally, the travel industry," Sloan said. "The people writing the stories don't know enough of the background and big picture to put events in perspective. And it's perspective that's key."

Sloan argued that there are legitimate news reports concerning outbreaks of norovirus on ships, such as a recent severe case on a British cruise ship that he said "raised serious questions about the operations at the line as it spread unchecked to an almost unprecedented level, with more than 35% of passengers falling ill." (Sloan noted that there have been just a handful of illness outbreaks in recent years that have spread beyond 10% of passengers.)

"That's legitimate news," he said. "But it's important to place the outbreak in context. ... Outbreaks actually are at their lowest level in nearly a decade. That's something you don't see mentioned in nearly any of the stories on norovirus outbreaks."

Moreover, there is an even more perplexing truth about norovirus that almost never gets mentioned in news reports: Not only are norovirus incidents on ships down, they were never as prevalent as on land to begin with.

Data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nine out of 10 outbreaks occur in land-based locations such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes. Paradoxically, cruise ships are disproportionately associated with the disease because they are the only entity required to report outbreaks to the CDC.

The cruise industry is not an entirely innocent victim of bad reporting. Its history also makes it a target, and perceptions last.

As recently as 2001, Carnival Corp. was fined $18 million for criminal charges related to falsifying records about dumping bilge during the 1990s. Two years before that, Royal Caribbean International admitted to rigging the pipes on its ships in order to bypass pollution equipment and illegally discharging dry-cleaning chemicals and other toxic wastes into the waters off the U.S. coast.

In 1993, Princess Cruises paid a $500,000 fine for illegal dumping after cruisers filmed crew members on the Regal Princess throwing plastic bags of garbage into the ocean near the Florida Keys.

But in fact, the industry says it has gone to extremes to undo these blots on its reputation.

"We are leaders in the maritime world," Terry Dale, CEO of CLIA, said at last week's State of the Cruise Industry press conference. "We invest millions in new technology, from exhaust scrubbers to advanced wastewater purification systems to LED bulbs and hangers that are recyclable. All of this collectively is part of our desire to minimize and mitigate our footprint."

CLIA contends that nowadays, cruise line waste management and recycling programs are more stringent than those in most cities and ports. Cruise executives have gone to great lengths to prove this, even drinking the clear liquid that was once sewage that ships now discharge into the ocean.

In many ways, the industry no longer has a choice. In 1993, the footage captured on the Princess ship was rare. These days, there is little information that a cruise ship could keep under wraps.

"Everybody has a cellphone, a computer linkup, they have Twitter, and the lines have to deal with whatever comes out," Dunham-Potter said. "There is no containment. People on the ship are relaying information as it happens."

When George Smith went missing in 2006, Royal Caribbean famously flubbed the investigation and was not forthcoming with the news media, creating a vacuum that sensationalist reporters were quick to fill. Since then, the lines have learned to quickly address incidents as soon as they occur.

Cruise lines are also targeted because their ships fly foreign flags and adhere to international maritime law. This creates an image of lawlessness that becomes part of the way the ships are covered.

"Here's an industry that is able to operate all these different ways on the high seas," said Syracuse's Thompson. "Any serious writer covering the cruise industry is going to focus on this. It's one of the principal realities of how this industry works."

Then there is the cruise industry's reputation, formed when it was less a family-friendly vacation than a party boat, or from memories of the TV series "The Love Boat." These images have been difficult to overcome when a small percentage of the public cruises.

"It's a subtle thing," Thompson said. "A cruise is a dream vacation for many, but there is also a strong strain in popular culture of cruise being the ultimate cheesiness. It's not just news reporters. When a big problem happens, there are comedians and writers and others who have taken shots at the cruise industry in funny ways."

Duff said that cruise companies have a lot of room to use good public relations and that current advertising is dispelling some myths that still persist.

"Those ads push cruising as more of an adventure and a way to explore other places, which starts hitting at stereotypes about cruising," she said. "People can question previously held attitudes about cruising."

Of course, ads only go so far. People need to hear from peers that cruising is a good way to spend their vacation dollars.

"The ad would have a lot less effect than an ad for cereal," Duff said. "I can go to the store and grab a box of cereal, and there's not a lot of risk involved. But you can't ignore something that doesn't have positive associations, and they have to do things that will change those attitudes.

"The ads will tell you, 'Maybe you thought cruising was like this, but actually here's the reality,'?" Duff said. "It might become part of your consideration set. If not, you might never type in 'cruising' to see what the peer reviews say."

Clarification: Comparisons between crime on cruise ships and popular vacation destinations in this report have been removed pending additional data.


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