Public Editor

Choosing which reader feedback to publish requires judgment

The Kansas City Star building at 1729 Grand Blvd.
The Kansas City Star building at 1729 Grand Blvd.

Looking back on 2013, I realize that earlier in the year I wrote a column I now wish I could take back.

I’m not going to identify it specifically. While it addressed something I heard from a great number of people, upon further reflection it dawns on me that it didn’t represent The Kansas City Star’s usual loyal readership. Rather, it was about something that had “gone viral” on the Internet and cable TV and generated a reaction that was highly out of the ordinary.

Many — probably most, actually — of those contacting me had grossly misinterpreted the item they were objecting to. Clearly many of them hadn’t even seen it themselves but had only followed others’ descriptions of it. And a huge percentage of the objectors used invective, profanity and even direct threats to Star staffers.

Again, I’m well aware that isn’t how The Star’s typical readers conduct themselves. And further, since so many of those contacting me were basing their anger on a misapprehension, I should have kept that feedback to my weekly internal report to the newsroom and the paper’s senior management, and not given it precious real estate in the paper.

One of my key roles as public editor is to be the readers’ voice inside The Star. That feedback is often a useful gauge.

But it’s also my job to give a public airing to what I hear from the readership, and that requires me to weigh several factors. How many people am I hearing similar criticisms from? Are the complaints based on actual concerns about fairness or accuracy, or are they examples of readers’ letting their personal biases color their interpretation of something neutral? And perhaps most of all, is the reaction proportional to the alleged infraction?

In other words, it takes editing. That’s an inherently subjective thing, and I sometimes get it wrong. There are mornings when every time I hang up with one reader, the phone rings again with another making the same point. In the heat of those moments, the volume and intensity of the criticism can lend what I will later view as undue weight to the concerns.

Heeding the lesson of my previous error in judgment, I’ve chosen not to elaborate on the two things I’ve heard about most in recent weeks. In one instance, I spoke to a great number of people who were upset at a column that espoused a common point of view, using personal opinions and valid examples that fell within the realm of responsible punditry.

In the other, scores of callers, emailers and social media users expressed outrage that The Star had underplayed a story. In actuality, the topic was splashed across the top of Page A1 of the print edition with a huge photo and a story, and it led The Star’s website for most of the day.

And to be frank, those contacting me about these two items already have a reputation (fair or not) as whiners, never content with media coverage of their pet topics. So what good would it have done to write columns about either of those grievances, though they were both widespread? In fact, publicizing these relatively unjustified beefs would further increase the scorn these people may feel.

A few of the criticisms I hear most often are either banal or so general that they’re impossible to address meaningfully, while some of the best points come from single astute readers. Evaluating how The Star covers the news shouldn’t boil down to a popularity contest.