Be a Sponge, Be a Duck


Have you ever written about dealing with criticism from readers and sources? This is the hardest thing for me to handle as a reporter. I think my writing is adequate, and I try to be creative when I have time. People seem to enjoy my feature stories. But I just freak out whenever I get something wrong. I want to quit every time I get a call from an irrate reader or source yelling at me. Am I too sensitive to be a reporter? Does anyone else have this problem? I have only been a reporter since April, when I graduated from college. Now I'm working at a daily newspaper in the Northwest. I love and hate my job. It alternates. I love reporting and writing, but I hate making people mad, and I feel like maybe reporters are asked to make light of people's lives by picking up the thread of them out of nowhere and then trying to tell the whole world this person's story after three hours of researching and phone calls. No wonder so many mistakes get made. No wonder people get so mad at us. I think journalism is a noble profession, but how do I develop a tougher skin? Or do I? Can you help? No one seems to be talking about this. Why?

Dian McClurg
Centralia, Wash.

Dear Dian,

Thanks! This is an important topic. and I don't think we address it adequately in newsrooms.

Reporting is stressful, demanding work. It requires assertiveness, confidence, tenacity, and courage.

It amuses me when I hear people say they went into journalism because they are introverts who would rather watch from the sidelines. We may not be on the field, in the campaign, on the stage, or in the thick of battle but, as you've discovered, that doesn't keep us out of the line of fire. The scores of journalists who have paid with their lives to bring back the news offer sobering proof of the risks that a press pass may carry with it.

Fortunately for most of us, harsh words, a blistering letter to the editor, or a sneering source may be the harshest blows we endure.

I don't think there's anything wrong with being sensitive to readers' feedback (more on that in a
minute) or getting upset when you make a mistake.

"Credibility is all we have to offer as journalists," I wrote last January in a column on the importance of accuracy and practical ways to achieve it. "Surveys show that the public expects the news media to be accurate, even though people are less confident than they used to be that news organizations get the facts right."  

"Accuracy is a mind-set, an attitude," I wrote. "The best reporters I know die a thousand deaths when they learn a story they wrote includes an error. Everyone makes mistakes, no one is perfect, but journalists must take great care to get it right. Otherwise they lose a news organization's greatest asset: credibility."

The bad news is, as you've seen, it can hurt sometimes. The good news is you care about getting it right.

Perfection is a laudable but often elusive goal, especially on a job that requires us to become instant experts on complicated subjects and communicate under enormous pressures of time and difficulty.

You are going to make mistakes, and when they happen the best thing is to admit it, correct it, figure out how you made it, and resolve to do better next time. I think the public dislikes our hubris more than anything, the vanity that fuels our reluctance to concede we may have gotten something wrong.

At the same time, we should fight harder to tell the tough stories even though they may offend those in power. I'm less worried about the media's bias than what often seems to be its cowardice in the face of criticism. A good news story has a point to make and the evidence to back it up. The struggle to establish truth demands courage. As the finest reporters and editors I've known have shown me, courage doesn't mean being unafraid but rather persisting in the face of fear and risk. 

It's true that you've chosen a field where popularity and approval are often in short supply. Examine why you became a reporter. Think about your philosophy: why you do this work, what it means to you, why you think it's important. Identifying our purpose and principles is a crucial first step before we do anything. It invests our work, and lives, with meaning. And it makes it possible for us to explain our actions to those who don't understand or approve.

A final point: Take criticism for what it's worth; no more, no less.

At a writing workshop I once took with novelist A. Manette Ansay, she asked us to consider her advice as suggestions we were free to take or reject.

"Be a sponge. Be a duck," she said.

If what you hear is useful, soak it up. Consider whether criticism is valid, whether it will help you achieve your purpose as a journalist to be accurate, fair, honest, and ethical.

If it isn't relevant, or you don't agree, let it roll off your back.

Hope this helps and that other readers will join the conversation on a topic that rarely gets addressed in newsrooms, but which keeps many of us awake at night. 

Best of luck,

[ Sponge. Duck. Or something else. How do you deal with criticism? ]

  • Profile picture for user chipscan

    Chip Scanlan

    Chip Scanlan is an affiliate faculty member at The Poynter Institute. From 1994-2009, he taught reporting and writing in its real and virtual classrooms and coached journalists worldwide. He spent two decades as an award-winning journalist for the Providence Journal, St.


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