Why can’t journalists handle public criticism?

Why do so many journalists find it so hard to handle public criticism? If you’re an athlete, you’re used to it. If you’re an artist, critics will regularly take you down. If you are in government, the pundits and now the bloggers will show no mercy. If you’re in business, the market will punish you.

In all these cases, the seasoned professional learns to deal with it. But over and over today, we encounter the sorry spectacle of distinguished reporters losing it when their work is publicly attacked — or columnists sneering at the feedback they get in poorly moderated web comments.

Clark Hoyt recently concluded his tenure as the New York Times’ “public editor” (aka ombudsman) with a farewell column that described the reactions of Times journalists to his work. It seems the process of being critiqued in public in their own paper continues to be alienating and dispiriting to them. Journalists typically, and rightly, see themselves as bearers of public accountability — holding the feet of government officials, business leaders and other public figures to the fire of their inquiries. Yet, remarkably, a surprising number of journalists still find it hard to accept being held to account themselves.

One passage in Hoyt’s column jumped out at me as a fascinating window onto the psyche of the working journalist today:

Times journalists have been astonishingly candid, even when facing painful questions any of us would want to duck. Of course, journalists don’t relish being criticized in public any more than anyone else. A writer shaken by a conclusion I was reaching told me, if you say that, I’ll have to kill myself. I said, no, you won’t. Well, the writer said, I’ll have to go in the hospital. I wrote what I intended, with no ill consequences for anyone’s health.

“If you say that, I’ll have to kill myself”? Even in jest, the line suggests a thinness of skin entirely inappropriate to any public figure. “Journalists don’t relish being criticized in public any more than anyone else,” according to Hoyt. Yet the work of journalists so often involves criticizing others in public that it is something they must expect in return. Surely they, of all professionals, ought to be able to take what they readily dish out.

I would argue that the difficulty American journalists have with hearing or responding to criticism lies in the profession’s pathological heritage of self-abnegation. We say, “To err is human,” right? But journalists too often work inside an institutional culture which says to them, “Be inhuman.” Do not have opinions — and if you do, for god’s sake don’t share them. Do not attend protests or take stands on issues. Do not vote; or, if you do, don’t tell anyone whom you voted for.

The good soldier journalists buy into this acculturation. They suppress their own individuality and perspectives. They subsume their own work into the larger editorial “we,” and learn to refer to themselves as “this reporter” instead of using the personal pronoun. When something goes wrong with the system they are a part of, when the little piece of journalism they have added to the larger edifice comes under attack for some flaw, they count on the edifice to protect them.

But no longer. Reasonable criticism of news coverage can now be published as easily online as the original reports, and the public expects media outlets to respond. Many editors and reporters understand that a new approach to accountability simply makes sense. So the institutions have begun, haltingly but significantly, to open up.

But many individual journalists find themselves at sea when called upon to explain mistakes, defend choices and engage in discussions with their readers and critics. Nothing in their professional lives has prepared them for this. In fact, a lot of their professional training explicitly taught them that all of this was dangerous, unprofessional, bad. They grew up thinking — and some still think — that the professional thing to do, when questioned in public, is (a) don’t respond at all; (b) respond with “no comment — we stand by our story”; or if things get really bad (c) your editor will do the talking.

Unfortunately, this means that the typical blogger has more experience dealing with criticism — measuring a reasonable response, managing trolls and restraining the urge to flame — than the typical newsroom journalist. That, I think, is why we regularly see the kind of journalist freakout that the New York Times’ James Risen visited upon us (and very quickly apologized for).

The syndrome I am describing here, of course, is already a relic of a previous era; most young journalists entering the field today have a very different relationship to their own work and the public. And many of the older generation, which I am definitely a part of now, have either learned to make their way through new waters, or kept their own steady course and even keel in rough seas.

But every newsroom has some ticking time-bombs, people ready to explode in a torrent of ill-considered invective. When they do, I think we can try to show some understanding. The next time you see some seasoned journalist lose his bearings when called upon to discuss or defend his work, chalk it up to inexperience, not stupidity or rudeness.

Crossposted from the MediaShift Idea Lab.

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  1. “They grew up thinking — and some still think — that the professional thing to do, when questioned in public, is (a) don’t respond at all; (b) respond with “no comment — we stand by our story”; or if things get really bad (c) your editor will do the talking.”

    An excellent policy. Too bad blogging “journalists” haven’t adopted some variation of the practice. Instead, they encourage flame wars and off-topic rants that more experienced journalists avoid like the plague. As both a print and blog journalist, I’m happy to “discuss and defend” my work, and respond to reasonable queries publicly–but I’m not going to endlessly debate the merits of my story with every troll who rolls up to my blog with an incendiary comment. Life’s too short.

  2. This may have something to do with why journalists don’t post citations: http://scienceblogs.com/terrasig/2010/06/do_arrogant_condescending_and.php

    I think that the issue here is that we have several different ways of fostering discourse, or creating conversations, or authoring literature: whatever you want to call it. Journalists are under pressure to create a ‘story’ of what is happening, extremely quickly and authoritatively, so that the public are sated. They are effectively creating fact, asap. This is why they don’t need to provide references, like academics – because there is no debate, ‘these are the facts’.

    This is also why your friend would consider killing himself – he has made an incorrect fact. He has created untruth.

    Not to mention in the face of millions of people, to whom he has already been party to the annihilation of several reputations.

    In academia, authors have years to compose ripostes. In government, politicians can wait til hustings and elections. In media, you’re dead already. Which is why he may as well kill himself.

  3. Sam Thomas

    An interesting piece, but your summary of Hoyt’s article is a little misleading. He’s at pains to stress that “histrionics were extreme and unique. The rule was thoughtful engagement.” If anything, the most unreasonable reactions he describes are those of bloggers and letter-writers quick to anger at the perceived failings of reporters. Fair enough, he’s bound to say that – but you can hardly cite it as evidence of thin-skinnedness on the part of journalists.

  4. Scott Rosenberg

    Sam, I used Hoyt’s observations as a jumping off point for my discussion, but I wasn’t using his column as the main example of over-reaction to public criticism; that would be the Risen incident. And it wouldn’t be surprising to find that NYT journalists reacted to his inquiries thoughtfully — after all, he is a colleague of sorts, and his discussions with the reporters were not themselves public. Under those circumstances, what’s surprising to me is that there would *still* be a reaction of the “I’d kill myself” ilk, even if it was not representative…

  5. dave

    The problem is that “journalists” are in an excess that needs to be quelled. People seem to think that they can just float around writing about anything and that they should be well-compensated, usually because they went to college and think they’re somehow more intelligent than those who did not. Here’s an uncomfortable fact. 99% of articles on the internet are only WORTH a good trolling. No one cares what you got paid to think. This glut of web-journalism is suffocating us as badly as the glut of jocks with MBAs, running the fucking world in to the ground.

    We, the Trolls of the Internet, demand attention.


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