Critical Thinking: Should newspapers make editorial decisions based on real-time reader feedback?

Critical Thinking: Should newspapers make editorial decisions based on real-time reader feedback?

In August, The Philadelphia Daily News tweeted a preview of their next-day front page showing a man, Edward Crawford, hurling a tear gas canister back at police officers during protests in Ferguson, Mo. In response to negative feedback on social media, the paper switched to a more sympathetic photo of a woman holding a sign. Should newspapers make these kinds of editorial decisions based on real-time reader feedback?

Connor Delaney, 22, junior, Emporia (Kan.) State University
Delaney is an English secondary education major from Overland Park, Kan. He has been on the staff of the student newspaper, The Bulletin, for two years, and is now the publication’s opinion editor.

Editorial decisions shouldn’t be second-guessed on deadline because of feedback on social media. The Philadelphia Daily News made a poor decision when it swapped front page photos because of online pressure to appear more sympathetic.

The photo that ran doesn’t best depict the events of Ferguson accurately. The original photo captured the anger and frustration of the crowd. The photo of the woman holding the sign fails to place the Ferguson unrest in context: It wasn’t taken at night, when most of the conflict occurred, and it doesn’t show the tear gas. If you were to summarize Ferguson in one photo, it would be the photo of Edward Crawford hurling the gas canister back at police. A good news photo is one that captures the emotion of a scene the best and portrays the story accurately.

The news is filled with unpleasant truths, truths that readers sometimes must be encouraged to see. If it were up to most readers, I have the feeling, newspapers would only run photos of celebrities, cats and other cuddly things.

But I’m not saying all photos should run. Clearly, news organizations made the right call not to use still captures of the video in which (journalist) James Foley is beheaded. But the photo of Crawford isn’t propaganda, it’s not overly graphic, and is such a great news photo that it has already become iconic.

The Society of Professional Journalists advises, “Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.” The Philadelphia Daily News failed to find the boldness necessary to convey the magnitude of Ferguson.

Terry Orme, 59, editor and publisher, The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah)
Orme is a 37-year veteran at the Tribune, and worked as a reporter, film critic, assigning editor and managing editor before being appointed editor and publisher in the fall of 2013.

Real-time reader feedback is a reality in the news gathering and presentation processes. We as an industry rightly have encouraged it, and we have obligated ourselves—again, rightly— to listen to it, to utilize it and be influenced by it. Social media is one of our most powerful information-gathering tools, an indispensible way of engaging communities and individuals.

That’s the easy part. It’s what you actually do with this reader feedback that can get difficult.

The Philadelphia Daily News decision to change up its front page is certainly defensible. Editors heard from readers, listened and acted.

It’s the discussion that occurred in the newsroom that night that gets to the heart of whether or not this was a good decision.

If editors thought the angry reader reception made a journalistic point that they hadn’t considered, then the change makes sense. If a tweet points out that you got something wrong and, after investigation and deliberation, editors agree, make a change. You’d be negligent not to.

But if you are considering a change to avoid angering, even alienating, a segment of readers, tread carefully. Journalists are sometimes going to offend their audiences. Not on purpose, but sometimes the news of the day is a difficult pill to swallow, and showing it graphically and from a point of view is the truthful thing to do.

Social media shouldn’t be a flash poll to direct us in how we do our jobs. Decisions about stories and photos and where they play are ours to make, ours to take responsibility for. Yes, we should listen to criticism and other points of view, but then stand back and ask: What’s right for our readers?

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Published: October 15, 2014

One thought on “Critical Thinking: Should newspapers make editorial decisions based on real-time reader feedback?

  • October 16, 2014 at 4:56 pm
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    We’ve all been on deadline and had to make the call. I don’t feel the decision was wrong or right. We also were not given the underlying justification by the editor. We weren’t told how many comments from how many different “readers.” Also there are legal ramifications to telling readers what you are going to print, getting feed-back and then running it anyway. I will point out an honest discussion in the newsroom today will help editor’s pull the trigger tonight.

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