How to handle story critics
There are many reasons why journalism is a tough job. The hours. The attention to detail. The annoying little feeling that you may have gotten something wrong despite your obsessive rechecking of the facts. But by far one of the worst feelings is when a source disagrees with something you’ve written.
Of course, one does not go into journalism to be liked all the time. If you want to create stuff people will enjoy, advertising, marketing or public relations may be a better route. The unfortunate but necessary part of journalism exposing ugly truths that some would rather remain hidden or put forth perspectives of which readers may strongly disapprove. Though shit.
If you’ve been in the industry long enough, you’ve run into it. No matter how long you’ve been a reporter, it still sucks to get an email from a source or reader telling you off about something you’ve worked really hard on.
Still, you’re not going to please everyone all the time, so you’ll need to develop a thick skin pretty quickly. Here are some things to consider before freaking out about a source who dislikes your piece:
Can it be rectified?
Did you misspell a name? Get a name of a program wrong? Misinterpret a statistic? These mistakes should be avoided at all costs, but they happen. We’re human. We screw things up. If a source wants you to correct an error and they have proof to support the correction, contact your editor ASAP with the correction, then notify them once the text is updated. Don’t beat yourself up about it. It may help to make yourself a basic list of things to fact-check before turning in: names, titles, statistics, quotes, etc.
Is it a difference of opinion?
Some beats, like public policy, sports, or crime, can get pretty heated. Reporters who’ve covered those beats for a time have likely received criticism, backlash, or even hate mail in response to the stories they’ve done. If a source or a reader wants to engage in constructive dialogue, you actually can come to common ground. You can respond by acknowledging their good points and defending yourself. But if someone’s emailing you or calling you with slurs or insults, tune it out. There’s no need to waste energy on hateful people. Your block button and spam filters are your best friend and your biggest self-care ally.
Did you miss an entire point of view?
If someone reaches out to point out a huge lapse in your coverage, that may warrant a second story entirely. To calm the source or reader, ask them about what sources you should consult on the subject and verify the legitimacy of those sources. Again, journalists are human. We don’t know everything. And even if we did, covering stuff we already know about would become incredibly boring. It’s all about finding what’s new, what’s interesting, finding conflict or nuance. Be open to criticism and new points of view can reveal new stories, and ultimately that’s good for everyone.
How do you handle criticism of your stories? Leave me a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.