Saturday, January 5, 2008

Stop Whining

Deborah Howell, ombudsman for the Washington Post, has a message for her reporters:

For as long as newspapers have existed, readers have complained that they focus on the negative and critical. Journalists tend to blow that off: That’s what’s news. But when readers are negative toward The Post or its journalists, they often are met with what former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee called “the defensive crouch.”

My new year’s resolution for journalists is: Suck it up and forget the abuse. My resolution for angry readers is: Don’t assume malevolence on the part of the reporter or the paper when mistakes are made. Most transgressions are caused by human error or ignorance.

If The Post makes a mistake, or if readers think The Post is leading them astray, they can have at it. But if readers, in e-mail and online comments, say we’re all idiots and ought to resign in disgrace, what do we do with that?

Having been attacked frequently and believing deeply both in free speech and civil discourse, I didn’t come easily to this conclusion: Journalists need to stop whining. The only thing we have to lose is our self-importance. We are just another part of the great public marketplace that is subject to this treatment. If the comments are simply abusive rather than critical, ignore them.

Then again, there are the journalists who invite abuse, and it would be impolite to refuse.