i-ce5ada2655ba331c13025675efa7d386-CircleWagons.jpg
News organizations’ default response to criticism is to circle the wagons.

“We stand by our story!” is a stirring thing to say, and sometimes it’s even the right thing. But in the web world of 2010, where everyone has a public platform, ignoring critics can also squander a news outlet’s credibility and alienate its audience.

The basic premise of MediaBugs — which I laid out in this video — is that news organizations can begin winning back the public trust they have lost by engaging civilly, in public, with people who criticize them about specific errors. Whoever is right in the end, and whether the newsroom decides to run a correction or not, the editors are better off explaining their thinking than slamming the door on dialogue.

Bloomberg’s Poll Problem

For an example of precisely the wrong way of handling legitimate questions about coverage, consider the controversy over a recent Bloomberg opinion poll. Josh Nelson, who blogs at Enviroknow.com, first brought this to our attention. He’d pursued something of a one-man campaign criticizing how Bloomberg framed its reports on a recent poll question about oil-drilling bans in the wake of the Gulf spill. Calling it a one-man campaign is a bit unfair, however, because he was joined by some impressive company along the way.

Here is the issue Nelson raised: Bloomberg’s headline for its July 14 story read “Americans in 73% Majority Oppose Deepwater Drilling Ban.” Its lead read: “Most Americans oppose President Barack Obama’s ban on deepwater oil drilling in response to BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill…” Because Bloomberg is a wire service, the story ran in many outlets — among them, the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.

Nelson argued that the headline and lead were not supported by the actual question the poll asked, which was: “Do you think the spill proves off-shore drilling is just too dangerous and should be banned in U.S. waters, or was this a freak accident and offshore drilling can be made safer and should not be banned?”

Nelson wrote:

Obviously, there is a huge difference between an indefinite ban on all offshore drilling and President Obama’s temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling. Regardless, Bloomberg polled about the former and reported on the latter.

Here you can read a summary of Nelson’s tenacious but ultimately quixotic attempts to get Bloomberg to correct this story. He contacted roughly a dozen Bloomberg staffers. After various referrals, he finally heard from Al Hunt, Bloomberg’s executive Washington editor, who supervised the poll. Hunt’s first response was:

mr nelson: why don’t you write back a serious response that doesn’t contain such silly assertions as intentionally misleading reporting or sloppy journalism.

After one further email, Nelson got a second reply from Hunt:

Mr. Nelson: We appreciate your interest in our BP poll and understand that you think the conclusions we reported are wrong. We have reviewed the article in light of your comments and we believe we interpreted the poll data correctly. We encourage you to write a letter to the editor to express your views.
— Al Hunt, Executive Editor

This would appear to be the end of the line for Bloomberg. Nelson’s further efforts to get a more satisfying response from the organization went nowhere. After Nelson filed a bug report at MediaBugs, we tried to talk with Bloomberg about the issue. We hit the same wall.

The wagons have circled. Bloomberg stands by its story. End of story?

Why?

Not exactly. Other news outlets have not shared Hunt’s view of the matter. The Atlantic ran a correction on one of its blogs; Kevin Drum at Mother Jones called it “stunningly bad journalism”; Jon Cohen of the Washington Post’s Behind the Numbers blog took apart the issue as well.

So why is Bloomberg being so obstinate? Here, it seems to me, are the possible scenarios:

  • Bloomberg dislikes the messenger. Unquestionably, Nelson could have pursued his complaint with more diplomatic finesse. One of his blog posts was headlined, “Does Anyone at Bloomberg News Care About Accuracy?” Bloomberg’s defensive response may be explained as a natural human reaction to hostile criticism, but it cannot be excused on those grounds. Editors shouldn’t make decisions about corrections out of pique. Journalists who care about accuracy have a duty to ignore their personal feelings about critics, to peel away the emotion and consider the substance, if any, of the criticism.
  • Bloomberg is just really busy and uninterested in worrying about yesterday’s news. Every news organization is strapped these days, and spending a lot of time sifting through “shoulda-coulda’s” from last week’s news budget is generally viewed as a luxury at best. We can empathize with harried newsroom managers, but we can’t give them a pass. Their future depends on readers’ perception that they hold themselves to higher standards than the average person who posts unvetted information online. And on the web there is no such thing as “yesterday’s news.” Yesterday’s error is republished over and over until it is properly corrected.
  • Bloomberg really believes there is no problem here. This one is hard for me to believe, given the evidence. But if it’s the case, surely the editors can see the value in actually making their rationale known rather than keeping it to themselves.

All the scenarios point to the same logic: By refusing to give its critic a thorough response, Bloomberg only hurts itself.