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June 17 2010

21:03

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" (a.k.a. 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.

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).

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.

March 12 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Plagiarism and the link, location and context at SXSW, and advice for newspapers

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The Times, plagiarism and the link: A few weeks ago, the resignations of two journalists from The Daily Beast and The New York Times accused of plagiarism had us talking about how the culture of the web affects that age-old journalistic sin. That discussion was revived this week by the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, whose postmortem on the Zachery Kouwe scandal appeared Sunday. Hoyt concluded that the Times “owes readers a full accounting” of how Kouwe’s plagiarism occurred, and he also called out DealBook, the Times’ business blog for which Kouwe wrote, questioning its hyper-competitive nature and saying it needs more oversight. (In an accompanying blog post, Hoyt also said the Times needs to look closer at implementing plagiarism prevention software.)

Reuters’ Felix Salmon challenged Hoyt’s assertion, saying that the Times’ problem was not that its ethics were too steeped in the ethos of the blogosphere, but that they aren’t bloggy enough. Channeling CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis’ catchphrase “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” Salmon chastised Kouwe and other Times bloggers for rewriting stories that other online news organizations beat them to, rather than simply linking to them. “The problem, here, is that the bloggers at places like the NYT and the WSJ are print reporters, and aren’t really bloggers at heart,” Salmon wrote.

Michael Roston made a similar argument at True/Slant the first time this came up, and ex-newspaperman Mathew Ingram strode to Salmon’s defense this time with an eloquent defense of the link. It’s not just a practice for geeky insiders, he argues; it’s “a fundamental aspect of writing for the web.” (Also at True/Slant, Paul Smalera made a similar Jarvis-esque argument.) In a lengthy Twitter exchange with Salmon, Times editor Patrick LaForge countered that the Times does link more than most newspapers, and Kouwe was an exception.

Jason Fry, a former blogger for the Wall Street Journal, agreed with Ingram and Smalera, but theorizes that the Times’ linking problem is not so much a refusal to play by the web’s rules as “an unthinking perpetuation of print values that are past their sell-by date.” Those values, he says, are scoops, which, as he argued further in a more sports-centric column, readers on the web just don’t care about as much as they used to.

Location prepares for liftoff: The massive music/tech gathering South By Southwest (or, in webspeak, SXSW) starts today in Austin, Texas, so I’m sure you’ll see a lot of ideas making their way from Austin to next week’s review. If early predictions are any indication, one of the ideas we’ll be talking about is geolocation — services like Foursquare and Gowalla that use your mobile device to give and broadcast location-specific information to and about you. In anticipation of this geolocation hype, CNET has given us a pre-SXSW primer on location-based services.

Facebook jump-started the location buzz by apparently leaking word to The New York Times that it’s going to unveil a new location-based feature next month. Silicon Alley Insider does a quick pro-and-con rundown of the major location platforms, and ReadWriteWeb wonders whether Facebook’s typically privacy-guarding users will go for this.

The major implication of this development for news organizations, I think, is the fact that Facebook’s jump onto the location train is going to send it hurtling forward far, far faster than it’s been going. Within as little as a year, location could go from the domain of early-adopting smartphone addicts to being a mainstream staple of social media, similar to the boom that Facebook itself saw once it was opened beyond college campuses. That means news organizations have to be there, too, developing location-based methods of delivering news and information. We’ve known for a while that this was coming; now we know it’s close.

The future of context: South By Southwest also includes bunches of fascinating tech/media/journalism panels, and one of them that’s given us a sneak preview is Monday’s panel called “The Future of Context.” Two of the panelists, former web reporter and editor Matt Thompson and NYU professor Jay Rosen, have published versions of their opening statements online, and both pieces are great food for thought. Thompson’s is a must-read: He describes the difference between day-to-day headline- and development-oriented information about news stories that he calls “episodic” and the “systemic knowledge” that forms our fundamental framework for understanding an issue. Thompson notes how broken the traditional news system’s way of intertwining those two forms of knowledge are, and he asks us how we can do it better online.

Rosen’s post is in less of a finished format, but it has a number of interesting thoughts, including a quick rundown of reasons that newsrooms don’t do explanatory journalism better. Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls ties together both Rosen’s and Thompson’s thoughts and talks a bit more about the centrality of stories in pulling all that information together.

Tech execs’ advice for newspapers: Traditional news organizations got a couple of pieces of advice this week from two relatively big-time folks in the tech world. First, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen gave an interview with TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld in which he told newspaper execs to “burn the boats” and commit wholeheartedly to the web, rather than finding way to prop up modified print models. He used the iPad as a litmus test for this philosophy, noting that “All the new [web] companies are not spending a nanosecond on the iPad or thinking of ways to charge for content. The older companies, that is all they are thinking about.”

Not everyone agreed: Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin said publishers’ current strategy, which includes keeping the print model around, is an intelligent one: They’re milking the print-based profits they have while trying to manage their business down to a level where they can transfer it over to a web-based model. News business expert Alan Mutter offered a more pointed counterargument: “It doesn’t take a certifiable Silicon Valley genius to see that no business can walk away from some 90% of its revenue base without imploding.”

Second, Google chief economist Hal Varian spoke at a Federal Trade Commission hearing about the economics of newspapers, advising newspapers that rather than charging for online content, they should be experimenting like crazy. (Varian’s summary and audio are at Google’s Public Policy Blog, and the full text, slides and Martin Langeveld’s summary are here at the Lab. Sync ‘em up and you can pretty much recreate the presentation yourself.) After briefly outlining the status of newspaper circulation and its print and online advertising, Varian also suggests that newspapers make better use of the demographic information they have of their online readers. Over at GigaOM, Mathew Ingram seconds Varian’s comments on engagement, imploring newspapers to actually use the interactive tools that they already have at their sites.

Reading roundup: We’ll start with our now-weekly summary of iPad stuff: Apple announced last week that you can preorder iPads as of today, and they’ll be released April 3. That could be only the beginning — an exec with the semiconductor IP company ARM told ComputerWorld we could see 50 similar tablet devices out this year. Multimedia journalist Mark Luckie urged media outlets to develop iPad apps, and Mac and iPhone developer Matt Gemmell delved into the finer points of iPad app design. (It’s not “like an iPhone, only bigger,” he says.)

I have two long, thought-provoking pieces on journalism, both courtesy of the Columbia Journalism Review. First, Megan Garber (now with the Lab) has a sharp essay on the public’s growing fixation on authorship that’s led to so much mistrust in journalism — and how journalists helped bring that fixation on. It’s a long, deep-thinking piece, but it’s well worth reading all the way through Garber’s cogent argument. Her concluding suggestions for news orgs regarding authority and identity are particularly interesting, with nuggets like “Transparency may be the new objectivity; but we need to shift our definition of ‘transparency’: from ‘the revelation of potential biases,’ and toward ‘the revelation of the journalistic process.’”

Second, CJR has the text of Illinois professor Robert McChesney’s speech this week to the FTC, in which he makes the case for a government subsidy of news organizations. McChesney and The Nation’s John Nichols have made this case in several places with a new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” on the shelves, but it’s helpful to have a comprehensive version of it in one spot online.

Finally, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has a simple tip for newspaper publishers looking to stave off their organizations’ decline: Learn to understand technology from the consumer’s perspective. That means, well, consuming technology. Niles provides a to-do list you can hand to your bosses to help get them started.

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