What can a blogger do that a journalist can’t? Take criticism, for one thing

A Culture Problem

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 © 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).

As per usual, please take the time to read the whole piece. The comments over there are good as well.

One Comment

  1. Anonymous July 2, 2012

    I recently criticized a journalist who wrote an editorial with a financial slant and got this response: I am not a financial whiz nor do I pretend to be. I was told to get something together under deadline, the same day, and I did.

    The journalist told me that I should take “the pressures and stress associated with modern journalism” into account. I was told, “This ain’t the so-called good old days. There aren’t 150 people in the newsroom anymore. Our deadlines aren’t the next day, they’re now. We write for the web, produce videos, tweet and ultimately write at the end of the day for the print record. We cover what we can and work with what we have.”

    At no point did the journalist say I was wrong. They did not defend their writing with facts but they did make a personal attack. I asked myself the question, “What can a blogger do that a journalist can’t?” And I came to the same conclusion that you did: “Take criticism for one thing.”

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