Generally, I limit the time I spend responding to negative comments about the articles I write. For one thing, by the time an article is published – even on the web – I’m already thinking about the next piece I want to write.
For another, such discussions tend to be endless. There’s usually little common ground in our basic assumptions and motivations, so if I leaped into the discussions the way I’m sometimes tempted to, I wouldn’t meet my next deadlines. Generally, if I respond at all, I limit myself to two emails, then leave the discussion. Personal attacks may sometimes sting, but I don’t feel any overpowering need to verbally pummel anyone else to the ground.
Besides, over the years, I’ve heard the same comments so many times that they bore me. However, if I were to respond to the most common negative comments that I receive, here’s what I would say:
1. “You’re wrong!”: Disagreeing with you is not automatically wrong or evil. If you see a factual error, by all means mention it, especially if it is part of a logical chain of thought that falls apart without it. But general issues, with multiple aspects and causes are a matter of interpretation, and you don’t disprove a viewpoint simply by condemning it.
2. “This is garbage!”: In all humility, probably not. While editors have schedules to meet, they are rarely going to publish anything that is not competently written and argued. Most of the times, calling something worthless only shows that you don’t understand the distinction between your opinion and intrinsic standards of argument and writing.
3. “You’re a troll!”: A troll is not just somebody who expresses an opinion with which you disagree. Unlike a typical troll, a journalist is not anonymous. A journalist may respond to readers’ comments, but they have no particular interest in controversy, because the time they spend responding is time they could be writing something for which they can be paid. Moreover, unlike a troll, if a journalist wants to continue working, their statements need to have some tenuous connection to fact.
4. “You’re just saying that to get page views”: Sorry, you’re confusing me with an editor. Past page views may determine whether an editor will accept a story on a particular topic. Otherwise, though, what a journalist wants is a story that interests them long enough to write it.
5. “That’s an opinion!”: Opinion pieces have a long tradition in journalism. Often, they are called columns or blogs. Generally, opinion pieces have a lower standard of evidence because they are talking about more abstract things than a news story, such as trends or impressions.
6. “I’ll complain to the editor!”: Unless you can prove that a piece is libelous – that is, false and deliberately meant to harm – don’t bother. The expression of an opinion with which you disagree is not libelous. Anyway, if an editor continues to publish articles expressing an opinion you dislike, chances are that for everyone who objects to the opinion, there’s one or two people expressing approval of it.
7. “That story makes them money”: Actually, in modern journalism, content is almost completely divorced from profit. Ads, not content, is what makes money in modern journalism. In theory, you could threaten to boycott an advertiser, but in practice you would need a lot of agreement to persuade a company to pull its ads from a particular site or magazine.
8. “I’m going to write an article to get the truth out”: Good luck with that. Besides strong writing skills, you need to understand the ethics of what you are doing, and show a willingness to work with editors by being on time and accepting corrections and suggestions. You also have to find an editor who needs more contributors and can afford to pay them. I’m not saying that you won’t succeed, but I will say that if writing were as easy as many people imagine, far more people would be doing it for a living. In the free software field, for example, no more than a dozen people manage the trick.
9. “You’ve got a vendetta!”: Some journalists occasionally do, but most couldn’t be bothered. For the most part, their interest lies in reporting what people are thinking, or what they should know. They may pursue a story if they perceive untrustworthiness or a lack of response, but, believe it or not, most journalists see themselves as pursuing the truth. Getting personal doesn’t fit with their self-image or their busy schedules.
10. “You”re lying!”: Get serious. Do you honestly believe that someone who publishes several articles a week could get away with outright lies? They would be unemployed in a matter of days. The statements you object to may be inaccurate, or, more likely, based on a different interpretation of events from yours, that’s all.
I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard that Richard Stallman has a number of Emac macros available at a keystroke so that he can make a standard argument without having to type it out again. I suppose this blog entry is a rough equivalent. So, in future, if anyone gets a message from me with this URL followed by a #5 or #9 or whatever, they’ll know that I’ve heard what they’re saying before.
But, then again, I’ll probably be too busy to do even that much. I’ve heard rumors that, beyond the keyboard there’s something called life, and I’d rather explore that spend my days satisfying people who only want an argument.