Guest Column: Addressing Media Criticism

If you work in the media, you learn to love your critics. They see the holes in your product that you fail to see yourself, and by pointing out your shortcomings, prove themselves to be your most stalwart supporters.

I respect my critics. I count some of my harshest as friends. I don’t know Matt Gagnon, but I’m sure over a couple of drinks, we could solve a fair share of the world’s problems. I also know I can teach him a few things about reporting.

In his recent column, Matt strung together a harsh ad hominem attack about Maine journalism. Here are a few keywords: incompetent, laziness, pedestrian, unengaged, untalented, and my favorite, “glorified note-takers.”

(My late writing teacher, Bill Glavin, would have told Matt to make it simpler. “How many words do you need to say they suck?” he’d mutter.)

That’s his opinion, which he’s free to espouse. What I’d like to address is what galled me – the glass house nature of the criticism, the background context of which was my paper’s reporting on Paul LePage’s train tour.

I know how that story was reported. I know how it was edited. I know how the decisions were made, how follow-ups were decided, how phrasing was chosen and how the fallout felt.

I know because I was part of it all. Matt was not, yet proffered his commentary as if he had an authoritative knowledge of this process. Yet neither I nor any member of my staff talked to him about it, despite the fact his column appeared days after our articles did.

So he accuses us of being lazy? I accuse him of not picking up the phone (or e-mail, or Twitter, or Facebook, or whatever) to contact us for another side to the story.

We don’t bite, after all. And we’re not hard to find. Journalists don’t hide, as a rule. Our phone numbers are published, our e-mail addresses are public records. We are virtually begging to be contacted.

That’s one lesson about journalism I’d convey: It’s hard to pick up that phone, write that e-mail, push that person on the other end to answer questions they’d rather not. Many of us hate it, and would avoid it if we could. But it’s part of the job, and we do it because it’s expected of us.

I’d like to think that Matt was too busy to call. After all, he’s got a day job. And if that’s the case, then it’s an understandable excuse. I may not like it, but I respect the work and time he puts into this site. (And the fact he brought in Derek V. He’s good people.)

What I fear, however, is that Matt elected not to call because he preferred his version of events, or his viewpoint on the matter, and didn’t want it ruffled by talking to us. That’s the other lesson about journalists.

Our job is challenging beliefs and reporting what’s true to the best of our knowledge. Journalists can’t report what they think they know; they report what they know for certain. It’s not a profession for the lazy or incompetent. Such descriptions are antithetical to every journalist I know.

Criticism comes with our territory, as I said, we respect it. It can make us better. All we ask is the equal courtesy that we extend every day: a phone call, a question, a chance to talk and illuminate. It’s how journalists should treat people and how they build their credibility as professionals.

Is it too much to ask for the same in return?

[Editor's Note] This editorial is a response to a recent article by Matthew Gagnon, “Can We Cut The Crap About The Media Already?“.  Tony Ronzio is the managing editor of the Kennebec Journal.