Friday, March 16, 2007

Understanding criticism

One of the things we do is to teach our students to be critical, perform criticism. Particularly journalism students are constantly being told they should perform critical journalism.

But what does this mean? From
S: (n) criticism, unfavorable judgment (disapproval expressed by pointing out faults or shortcomings) "the senator received severe criticism from his opponent"
S: (n) criticism, critique (a serious examination and judgment of something) "constructive criticism is always appreciated"
S: (n) criticism, literary criticism (a written evaluation of a work of literature)

Most of the time "criticism" is taken to mean the first thing: unfavourable judgement, pointing out faults.

I think this is one of the greatest mistakes of modern journalism: The understanding of "critical" to mean you have to find something wrong with whatever you are writing about. To be a critical journalist should be to employ the second meaning of the noun: a serious examination.

Today negativity seems to be the main criteria for a good story (unless it's the obligatory feel-good story). If journalists can't warn us of disaster, corruption, lies, danger to our health or what ever, it's not a story. What does this do to our perception of what is important?

First of all it scrambles the big picture. As long as we are only presented with the errors and the flaws, the public has no way to learn about possible strategies for improvement and growth. Only being introduced to options we should not choose makes choice almost impossible, and the result is that rather than searching for the better choice we settle with the lesser of several evils. The better choice is not interesting, as it doesn't offer the option of unfavourable judgement.

At the same time the warnings are important. We should not go without them. But my other problem with modern journalism is the mechanism which makes all news media report on exactly the same issues. This way you don't only get nothing but warnings, you get warned about the exact same thing everywhere. So the options for the public are diminished by the flawed perception of good competitive strategies: beating others at the same game is more important than looking around for some other and more interesting game.

So, I just delivered an unfavourable judgement. A common piece of criticism. How to make this constructive?

I think critical journalism is extremely important, and there's some really good work done out there. We need good gatekeepers and professionals to sort through the masses of information and ask questions about it on our behalf. It's an expremely important profession. I just wish they would put a bit more emphasis on the serious examination part, and a bit less on the unfavourable judgement part. And that they would stop hunting in such huge packs, victims to the blood fog of the deadline and the scoop.

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