Facing Up to the Feedback

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, January 6, 2008

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.

Reader Beverly Larson of Bristol, R.I., raised the issue recently: "Would you please explain The Post's policy on reader feedback on articles? Do reporters and editors look at the e-mail exchanges? Or is The Post merely providing a forum for expression and dialogue among readers? Or to foster a sense of connection to the paper?"

Anonymous online comments don't foster a sense of connection to the paper. But, along with blogs and chats, they lure visitors and build loyalty to washingtonpost.com, said Jim Brady, the Web site's executive editor. My problem is that quicker removal of offensive postings is badly needed. Brady said there will be more monitoring at nights and on weekends. Good. The paper is a far different news medium and doesn't print anonymous attacks. Well, except on Sports section blog excerpts.

Some reporters and editors read the online comments. Others flatly avoid them as poisonous. They're daunting and don't raise morale. But free speech doesn't have to be decorous.

The venom rolls off the backs of some journalists; others hate it. Prince George's County reporter Ruben Castaneda tries to respond to e-mails "calmly and professionally" even "if they're abusive. Now and then responding sparks a thoughtful dialogue."

Web site comments can be more than ugly and are often aimed at private citizens quoted in stories. National reporter Darryl Fears would stop them. "Comments attached to stories about race, ethnicity and related issues such as immigration often reek of racism, intolerance and ignorance. To ignore them, in my opinion, is to endorse them."

Metro columnist Marc Fisher disagrees. "I don't mind abusive or insulting comments in the least. Like anyone else, I find the most extreme abuse unsettling, but short of that, it's all part of the exchange with readers. We have our say in our articles and comments; if we're going to let readers have their say, we ought to let those boards be a true reflection of all the wrath, foolishness, wisdom and range of opinions that people bring to our work."

Fisher makes a good point with this reminder: "I have never understood why some colleagues treat the online comments as if they were representative of the overall reader reaction to a story. Online comments are like the phone calls on talk radio. They tend to be the folks with the most polarized and virulent of viewpoints."

Style reporter Paul Farhi said, "I'm not sure why anyone would be offended by negative comments. It's part of the territory. We're not here to be loved and praised. Negative commentary is part of the conversation, too. News flash: There are a lot of ignorant, angry people in the world. And so what? Let those people blow off steam, too."

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