Journalism: “Critics Say” is a Curious Reporting Device

Critics say

In a conversation with an old journalism school classmate one time, we talked about some of our pet peeves when it comes to reporting. She has been a long-time serious journalist, and I’ve been in the PR profession for just as long. That’s why we found it amusing that one thing that bothered both of us is when reporters frame certain allegations in their coverage with, “Critics say.”

Here’s an example: “Antitrust bill would destroy Amazon Prime, critics say.”

Do you see what they did there?

The headline made a declarative statement, and with no one specific to attribute the sentiment to, and then added the term, “critics say,” which is designed to legitimize the claim.

The reason that my friend and I, coming from both PR and journalism, arrived at the same conclusion is that at best the words, “critics say” are used to justify lazy reporting. At worst the term can be used to provide cover for the bias and personal opinions of the reporters themselves.

Lazy Reporting

Anyone can insert this term in any article to create the appearance of balance. Sometimes reporters do this because they don’t have time to go out and get an another, attributable comment from someone. They’re on deadline, and they know there are enough ‘critics’ who feel a certain way as to include the generalized statement in their work. That’s an understandable, if not acceptable, reason for the use of the term.

Both my friend and I would argue that if you’re going to make strong claims in a straight news piece (not an analysis or opinion piece), make the time to get the other point of view and attribute it to someone with a name and a title. This only adds to the credibility of the work.

A Tool for Bias

The worst-case scenario is when reporters aren’t after balance at all. I’ve seen this in my crisis communications work. It’s not uncommon for some reporters to come at a story with such a strong bias that their intent is to attack an organization with one baseless allegation after the next. Keep in mind, I’m not saying that all allegations are baseless. Those that are supported by facts, data, anecdotes and attribution to an identifiable source are not typically baseless, at least not on face value.

But if a reporter can’t find anyone to go on record and make an allegation, and that reporter has to resort to anonymous attribution techniques like, “critics say,” just to find a way to insert a certain allegation, that’s a red flag. This is an indicator that the critics the reporters may be referring to could be simply the reporters themselves.

This practice is so common that now that you’ve read this blog post, you’re bound to notice it more in the reporting you consume. I hope it’s something you think about the next time you see it.

This is just one of those media interviewing techniques that we cover in our own media training work. What is your pet peeve about news coverage? Let me know.

Posted in Corporate & Strategic Communication, Crisis & Issues Management, General, PR & Media Relations and tagged , , , .