How to handle criticism: tips from a pro

Don McCurdyAh, criticism. It’s a journalist’s job to criticize. We’re the people’s watchdog. We afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. We keep the powerful in check. So as reporters, we’re obliged to lay down a few criticisms — but what goes around comes around.

Angry letters to the editor, boycotts, libel suits — every reporter has at least one story that came back to bite them in the ass. But if you’re really good and if you think you’re in for a long career, it’ll happen more than once. So says Don McCurdy, the new executive director of the Ontario Press Council.

McCurdy will now make a living criticizing reporters. The council reviews complaints from the public about the 225 newspapers in Ontario. They field 125 complaints a year. Before his current gig, McCurdy was the managing editor at the Waterloo Record for 15 years. He knows intimately the pressure journalists face every day. Alas, he says, we make mistakes, especially at the beginning. The best you can do, McCurdy says, is to not repeat them. Here’s an excerpt from our Q & A session.

Why are people afraid of criticism? What’s the real story there?
There’s a huge insecurity of being young and being involved in something brand new and that insecurity makes it hard to accept criticism. Most people don’t want to expose themselves to ridicule. That’s part of being a journalist, that’s part of the learning process.

So the fear of criticism is really the fear of looking bad in front of the people you’re trying to prove yourself to?
Learn from criticism. Don’t pretend for a second you’re not going to make mistakes. You’re young and you’re learning the business. A lot of it is trial and error. You’re going to make mistakes and you’ll be called on them. So when you are called on them, try to understand where your critic is coming from.

What should rookies tell themselves when they’re down?
The first rule of journalism is check your ego at the door. It’s not about you, it’s about your audience. Criticism should always accepted. But of course, consider the source.

Someone writes a letter to the editor about your story — do you hide under your desk?
The better your stories, the more significant they are, the more criticism you’re going to get. There’s three sides to every story. Your side, their side and the truth. The truth runs somewhere along the middle. Don’t get upset when people write letters to the editor criticizing your work. You had your chance to voice your opinion, this is theirs.

What if your editor expects you to know everything already?
I worked with some people when I was young who were outrageously overwhelming. Their criticism wasn’t helpful — and I’m not saying it wasn’t right — but it was very much a drama. They were loud, obnoxious and demanding. But in reality, if you look at some of the things they were criticizing, you can look back and see, yeah, I was wrong.

When you get a job, it’s good to find somebody in the newsroom who you can latch on to, help you get through some of the rough spots. And if you’re really, really lucky, it’ll be your boss. But if the guy who ends up being a bit of a throw-back, if you get an old-fashioned newsman who’s been at this a while and they like the way its used to be, if you get a boss you can’t relate to or learn from, he’s your boss. Listen to him, but find someone who can help you out, someone who’s gentler but can teach you. You’re not going to learn from someone tells you are a piece of crap.

Meanwhile, Brian Gabrial offers McCurdy some constructive criticism of the Ontario Press Council — we know he can handle it.