One of the first lessons you learn when you go to school to study journalism is to expect to be criticized.
Professors often stress the importance of a thick skin almost as a precursor to the teaching of other fundamentals such as interviewing, investigating and writing, because without it, nothing else will matter.
A journalist who can’t accept criticism – whether it is fair or not – and remain objective will not do well.
And then there is the old industry maxim that as long as you are catching hell from all political directions, you are probably doing a good job.
During this political season – which we hope finally ended last week with clarity one way or another – the staff of your hometown newspaper strived to carefully listen to criticism, examine it and then continue to report the news as fairly and objectively as possible.
We have also found ourselves the recipients of all kinds of feedback from what seems like every conceivable political point of view. We even had an advertiser stop doing business with us because of their perception that we unfairly criticized Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Others have said we favored Democrats in our reporting because of their perception that we have a liberal bias. Some accused us of being harder on Democrats. In some cases, individuals congratulated us for our “fair” reporting immediately following stories that raised questions about their political foes.
Whatever opinions our readers have had, we have welcomed them. Those of you who have read the high volume of letters-to-the-editor that we have published in the past several months know we don’t mind allowing others to have their say. In most cases, as long as letters are coherent, avoid libel issues and do not call for violence, we will gladly print them.
We don’t even mind when other media get in on the act, even when their criticism is journalistically misguided.
Mostly, we absorb the feedback, double check any facts that a reader has disputed, correct any mistakes that we’ve made and ask ourselves if we should have done anything differently. Honest self-evaluation is crucial in this business.
With that said, here’s a smattering of some of the more interesting bits of feedback we’ve received:
One Maquoketa business man, upset at our lack of coverage of Republican political events, accused us of having a “liberal spin” and wrote in a personal note that “I see plenty of ads for the Democratic Party but little to note for the Republican party. … I advise you as the publisher of the paper to be more bipartisan as it will behoove you and your paper sales.”
I promised him that we did not turn any advertisers away. Our business runs on money, and we view all dollars as green – not Democrat blue or Republican red.
Another political operative, this one a Jackson County Democrat, complained in a letter to the editor that our handling of a story involving a video of Jackson County sheriff candidate Steve Schroeder drinking with a minor in a West Des Moines bar was a cheap shot. She suggested that our decision to post the video on our website and write about it were politically motivated.
What she didn’t point out is that our story showed that we painstakingly sought comment from Schroeder to allow him the opportunity to explain the content of the video. As we published her letter, we asked ourselves this question: If we had obtained a video of his opponent doing the same thing, would we have done anything differently?
With absolutely no doubt, we would have handled the story exactly the same way.
Another comment, this one a little unsettling, came from a local Facebook regular upset about the same story. He suggested someone should come to my house and punch me in the face. So far, no one has acted on his suggestion, and I hope it stays that way.
And as I said earlier, a few people have taken the time to encourage us in our work. While we have received several letters for publication of this nature, my favorite came from a reader who tucked a note into the envelope with his subscription renewal.
“This is the first time in my life we’ve actually had a press doing its job as journalists here in Maquoketa,” he wrote. “I frankly don’t expect you to last much longer, but well done nonetheless.”
While we appreciated his favorable commentary, we hope his ability to predict the future is limited. We want to keep doing what we are doing for a long time, serving our readers by seeking the truth the best we can and accepting the feedback that comes with it.