My friend and long-time colleague Joe Howry, editor of the Ventura County Star, notes that it is against the paper’s policy to “argue” with readers when they are critical of the paper’s coverage.
We generally don’t rebut criticism for a number of reasons. For one, we simply can’t afford an ombudsman. For another, arguing in print with a letter writer is most often unseemly and unfair. It makes us look overly sensitive and defensive and unfairly gives us the last word. That is not what the Opinion pages, and especially the letters to the editor, are about. Credibility depends on fairness.
I would also contend that credibility also depends on transparency.
Further, I wonder if it really serves our journalistic goal to seek and reveal truth and accuracy if we allow unrebutted letters to appear in print.
Here’s my solution: Start a “criticism blog.” Put all those questioning and critical letters in the blog, and like a blog quote and respond. Fisk the letters if necessary. Open up comments on each post. Encourage a dialogue about the issues raised by the letters.
The “we don’t respond to critics” attitude seems like an extension of the packaged goods media paradigm of “here’s the news, take it or leave it.” I’m not sure that’s how we win in the digital age.
For example, there’s a criticism of the Star right on Joe’s column. Somebody from the paper should offer a sound, level-headed, honest and fully transparent response right now, right in the next comment.