Deborah Howell is the ombudsman for the Washington Post. She has a column in which she writes about readers' concerns over articles and editorials that appear in the Post. This last week, she had a column discussing the comments section that appears at the end of Post articles that appear online. This quote is from her column: Complaints first came from the newsroom. Reporters don't appreciate the often rude feedback, which I get, too. (A sample reader comment on my column last week: "I think we can all agree after reading Howell's lame comments week after week that the Post should save money by eliminating her position entirely. She is worse than a dupe.")
No one likes to receive criticism, not reporters, not politicians, so the reaction of reporters is a common human reaction. Here's the thing, though, in the past, reporters were insulated from readers' reaction to a much greater degree than today. As Howell notes at the start of her column: Not so long ago, the only way to talk back to The Post was to write a civil letter to the editor, with a verifiable name and address, or to contact the ombudsman. This meant that a person had to sit down, write or type the letter, mail it, and hope that someone in the paper actually read it. Further, there was no way to know if the person who read it was going to actually show it to the reporter who wrote the article.
Now, however, not only can readers post comments at the end of Post articles, but they can also send emails to the reporters who wrote the article. This is because the Post, like most newspapers with websites post the email addresses of the reporter writing the article. Like in so many areas, this means that the Internet is changing the relationship between reporters and their readers. No longer do readers have to be passive in their relationship with a newspaper. Now, like with blogs, they can be interactive with the newspaper.
Reporters are not used to reader accountability. They are used to employer accountability, but not reader accountability. A lot of them tend to be people who are much better at dishing out criticism than receiving it. Maybe they will come to have more appreciation for the people they write about. Maybe they will realize how hurtful a thoughtless comment can be, whether it appears in the comments section of a newspaper posted by a reader, or in an article written by a reporter.
In any event, the next time you read an article online that you disagree with, or one that you like, take an extra minute to see if there is a comments section or an email address for the writer. If there is, then leave a comment or write an email. Refrain from vulgar, obscene, or threatening language, but don't be afraid to give the writer your reaction. If Howell's column is any indication, reporters apparently read them.