Journalists like to think of themselves as good critics, so why are they so timid about criticizing fellow journalists?
“I’d like to see more media criticism in general,” 9News Anchor Kyle Clark emailed me. “I think it can only make journalism more accurate and useful. I think journalists are often in a unique position to offer competing perspectives on the work of other journalists. As long as that criticism is provided in the spirit of getting accurate and complete reporting to the public, I see no issue with it.”
Fox 31 Denver Political reporter Eli Stokols told me via email:
Stokols: “Denver is increasingly a media desert. The only remaining big daily newspaper is hemorrhaging staff. Television stations are going younger and cheaper with each passing contract. As a result, there are more and more mistakes and omissions in stories, less depth and analysis, less stories getting covered on the whole — and there’s hardly anyone out there in a public role doing criticism, keeping score. So, when there’s an important journalistic distinction to be drawn, it often falls on journalists themselves to draw it. And in some cases, I’m willing to do so.”
Denver Post Politics Editor Chuck Plunkett also supports journalists criticizing each other, writing that it’s “responsible” for reporters to be media critics.
So why don’t we see more media criticism by Denver journalists?
Criticism Should Not Be Reserved for Egregious Cases
Stokols wrote that he’d criticize journalists more often if he had more time, but only in “extreme circumstances.”
Time constraints I understand, but why just extreme circumstances? The media is a player in politics, and so it’s obviously part of the basic job description of a political journalists to criticize other journalists, as often as possible, even if the criticism isn’t major.
Thumping the Journalistic Chest Is Good
Clark favors more criticism generally, but worries that “trolling the work of fellow journalists purely for mean-spirited or competitive purposes doesn’t do any good.”
Journalists don’t need to be mean-spirited, I agree, but competitive? Why not? Doesn’t fact-based, professional competition (scoops, investigative reporting, etc.) among journalists benefit everyone?
As Eli Stokols wrote:
“As someone at a station with a brand that doesn’t carry the same heft as ‘The Denver Post’, it’s a bit more important to remind readers/viewers when they’re getting certain stories, or more stories, from FOX31 News at 9 or kdvr.com. We’re not the number one station. We’ve only been on the air 13 years. So we have to fight a little bit harder to build and enhance our unique brand. If I break a story and, two hours later, it starts getting traction after it appears in the Post, I’m not doing my job getting my story into the news pipeline and making sure that readers and other sites linking to it understand who broke it and when. All journalists want to serve the public, but we also want to get credit for our work. This is a business. Our brands are important. It’s not enough to report and write and then post or air a story; now, you’ve got to sell it too.”
Criticize Even If You Think It Might Be Petty
Plunkett worried that “if the criticism became overly personal — one writer picking on a writer for a clunky sentence. for example — my concern is that it would make us look petty.”
I agree with Plunkett — and so did Clark and Stokols. But journalists are too thin-skinned generally, so they should compensate for their natural tendency to think a criticsm is petty or personal when it probably isn’t. In other words, they should err on the side of launching the criticism, even in they think it’s dumb.
Journalists Shouldn’t Let Fear of Making Mistakes Stop Them from Criticizing Others
Stokols wrote: “I try to remember to temper my criticism a bit, knowing that I myself and my newsroom get beat on plenty of stories and make our share of mistakes.”
If a journalist sees an opportunity for criticism, and it’s in the public interest to point it out, she should. It’s irrelevant that she might make the same mistake some day. If the criticism is deserved, and there’s time to articulate it, it should be delivered.
Journalists Should Side with Factual Commenters
This is big frustration of mine, as a progressive. Why don’t more journalists intervene, as in take sides, when another journalist is fighting a reader/advocate/partisan about whether a story is accurate? (See Twitter)
If a journalist is debating a reader about a fact, let’s hear from other journalists. If that’s not in the public interest, what is? Not just on Twitter, but also in comment boards.
Plunkett said journalists should side with fellow journalists or reasonable commenters, adding:
“I try to respond to credible criticism that strikes me as offered in good faith, whether the post comes from a transparent or opaque account. Doing so should build accountability and good will within the politics community. If the poster is a known belligerent or appears destined to become one, I tend to avoid response.”
Media Criticism by Journalists Can Make A Difference
Clark wrote: “Constructive media criticism via Twitter is hugely useful because it allows us to identify weak spots or errors in stories, often before they go out via our largest distribution platforms. Accuracy is the goal and constructive media criticism is essential to getting the story right.”
This makes sense to me, especially with the rise of Twitter, because what better way to stop the messengers from spreading bad information than calling the messengers out while it’s still gestating on Twitter?
Stokols is less optimistic: “When there are no consequences for ripping off other people’s work without citation, no consequences for failing to cover a major story or doing so poorly, lackluster journalism is likely to persist — especially when outlets with stronger “brands” seem to maintain some bottom-line dominance regardless of what they’re putting in print, online or on the air. And unfortunately, a sharp-tongued tweet or blog post probably isn’t going to do much to reverse that trend or wake people up. Put another way, it’s unlikely that sort of criticism will ever reach the critical mass where it has any serious impact.”
I think public criticism by respected journalists can make a difference, and even more so as social media expands.
If more reporters saw media criticism as part of their daily beat, and more seem to, it might make a difference.
Plus, it makes for good reading — which is another reason journos should do it. They’ll build their audiences.