(Not So) Basic Journalism Skills: Handling Critics

by - May 05, 2014

Viewers. One day they're your biggest fan; the next, they're your most vocal naysayer. In a word, they're fickle. And it's that fickleness JSchool just doesn't prepare your for, or how to deal with viewers at all really.

My viewers are extremely invested in our shows; they have a HUGE sense of ownership over what we do. That can be both good and bad, depending on the day.

In the first edition of this series, I talked about viewer phone calls and how to deal with them. But if you've ever worked in a newsroom,  you know that phone calls aren't the only way viewers contact you. They frequently take to social media - yours or their own - and are quick to send an email, especially if they're angry.

In this business, dealing with criticism should be second nature. Unfortunately, many of us enter our professional careers with no idea of how to respond to our critics or even if we should. Let's face it, the only criticism we received in college was from our professors and not personal. In the real world of journalism, viewers take every story personally.

Interacting with viewers is the hardest, most frustrating and challenging, and rarely sometimes can be the most rewarding part of my day. Chances are if you call my newsroom, I'm who you get on the other end of the line. If you interact with our social media sites, chances are pretty high I'm on the other side of the keyboard. I talk to irate, irrational and crazy people every day. It just comes with the job.

When you work in this business, one of the first things you have to realize - especially in a small/medium-sized market - is that you're always going to be in the cross-hairs. Once you realize that, the next step is to accept that you will never make everyone who watches/reads happy. It's a sad reality of life that there are some people among us who look for reasons to complain. As a member of the media, those complaints, though not always directed at you, will often land at your feet.

So how and when should you respond to these naysayers? Like I've said in nearly every part of this series, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but I think I can offer up some tips from personal experience and advice from fellow journalists.

First things first, you do not always have to respond. Sometimes people are just looking for someone to rant to; no reply is necessary in those situations. Also, if someone is only reaching out to you to criticize how you dress, it's probably safe to ignore them. The best advice I can offer is to use your best judgment and evaluate each situation individually.

But what about those situations that do warrant a response? How should you go about it?

My first piece of advice is to be professional. If you sink to the viewer's level, you've accomplished nothing. My second piece of advice is to be honest. You don't have to be specific with people, and in most cases you don't have to defend your actions to them.

The way I handle Facebook posts/messages and emails is to thank them for watching. Then I tell them that we'll take their concerns into consideration as we move forward. If there is an explanation that can be given as to why we did or did not do something, I include that. I always try to be diplomatic, and if it's a situation I can't handle, I don't hesitate to pass them on to my supervisor.

I reached out to some of my colleagues on Facebook last week about the ways they handle critics. Here's what they had to say:

Martha: "Write a letter saying all the mean things back you want to say, but do not send it. It helps you move on."

Ben: "I would always write back the nicest letter possible. They all usually ended with something to the effect of "I'll pray for you". If they are e-mailing then they are usually pretty loyal... still full of garbage and hot air, but loyal."

Erica: "I agree with Ben. I start by thanking them for watching. I close by thanking them for reaching out to us with their concerns."

Stephen: "Just tell them the truth! And thank them for watching!"

Ki: "Privately! No on-air or publicly-posted retorts. It never makes anyone look good. I remember seeing an overweight meteorologist who tried to say that the question "are you worried about setting an unhealthy example by being overweight on camera?" was just bullying her...she came off defensive and whiny, while simultaneously ignoring the actual question (which I think is a fair one, even if it's maybe in poor taste)"

Muriel: "Always be nice."

As my news director says - "I hate you. I love you. I'll see you tomorrow." It's the perfect way to describe most of the people who reach out to newsrooms to complain.

What advice do you have to help up-and-coming journalists learn how to deal with the critics they'll never escape?

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  1. Hi, Ashton! As you know, there were no social media sites or emails in the 70s and 80s when I was in TV news. The only way people had to express their complaints was to phone the station or send us a letter via snail mail. I agree with Erica and Muriel (above) that the best way to handle negative feedback is to always be nice, polite and professional and to thank them for expressing their concerns. A lot of people feel powerless in their daily lives. Having the opportunity to express complaints about ANYTHING to a real live person on the phone or on the screen gives them a measure of power and control. Nobody benefits if you debate them. By thanking them for voicing their opinion you disarm them and they usually become more reasonable to deal with.

    Hey, I drove right through your coverage area recently on my way to see relatives in East Central Alabama. We came in from Georgia and right past Dothan. I thought about you.

    Thanks again for the supportive comment on my blog, dear friend!