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When Critics A Reporter Cites Are The Reporter


Every genre has its conventions, not least that of news writing, a humble form Nicolás Gómez Dávila once described as “writing exclusively for others.” Shortcuts are required not only to spare the writer’s effort but also to save the reader’s time. That they often verge into clichés or are bent to polemicizing misuse does not make them any less necessary. The ability to handle them responsibly is one mark of the honest professional.

When it comes to reporting on contentious issues, perhaps no journalistic shortcut is more prone to misuse than the phrase “critics say.” Used well, it usually precedes a quotation from one of those critics that allows the reader to judge them in their own words. Used poorly, it becomes an opportunity for the writer to put words in the mouths of people he doesn’t like in order to discredit their position or insert his own view into the story. All of a sudden, “critics say” just what the reporter happens to think.

Usually, reporters are careful enough there’s no way to prove this has happened. Occasionally, they’re sloppy enough that we can see the editorializing at play

When the Critic Is the Reporter

Take a recent story written for Religion News Service by David Gibson on a donation from the Koch brothers to the Catholic University of America. Gibson gives ample space to the view of certain “critics”:

Critics of the CUA gift say it is ironic that the school would seek such massive support from a social liberal when Catholic charities are not allowed to take any money from any person or group that supports abortion rights or gay rights.

Curiously, he does not name any critics or offer any examples of that kind of argument. Why not? If critics said something, there should be critics to name and statements to quote. Did Gibson just make them up?

Well, no, as it happens. There is a critic who has made this exact point about CUA and Gibson has heard him do so. The week day before he published his story on the Koch gift, Gibson participated in a debate where one critic had this to say:

For years, conservative Catholics have been arguing the very same thing: that CCHD, Catholic Charities, and Catholic social groups cannot take a dime from somebody who has even the remotest connection to the gay rights agenda or Planned Parenthood. This is like Planned Parenthood funding a Catholic bioethics center.

This is exactly the criticism that Gibson was referring to. It came in a public forum on a radio show that aired the day before his story was published. So why not quote the statement and name the critic?

Perhaps it is because the criticism was offered by Gibson himself. The unnamed and unquoted people in the story weren’t made up—they were the reporter himself. He is the critic who had something to say.

It’s Not a One-Time Thing for Gibson

For a reporter to present his own arguments—unquoted, unattributed—to the reader as the views of anonymous “critics” is unethical and irresponsible. Gibson owes his readers an explanation.

That explanation will have to take account of the fact that Gibson’s work is laced with editorializing uses of the phrase. Over the years, unnamed “critics” have had a great deal to say in Gibson’s stories—usually offering opinions very much in line with Gibson’s own.

From August 25, 2014:

But critics say the pope needs to do more, and move faster, and they have cited the Wesolowski case as an example of the special treatment they say bishops still receive.

From April 29, 2014:

It’s the 21st century equivalent of the New Testament admonition that “the love of money is the root of all evil” in an age when critics say the globalized capitalist system is rigged against the poor.

From November 13, 2013:

Kurtz is a staunch opponent of abortion and has led prayer protests at abortion clinics. Critics say he’s an outspoken opponent of gay rights, while abuse victims’ advocates say Kurtz was not active enough in reaching out to victims in Knoxville and Louisville.

From September 12, 2013:

Critics say conservatives have also contributed to the confusion by overemphasizing the notion of ‘pre-emption’ as a form of self-defense—the principle that was used to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, an action that proved to have violated most every other just war condition.

From November 8, 2012:

By remaining silent on the issue, critics say the bishops are not only undermining their own policies — Finn heads a diocese yet would not be allowed to teach Sunday school in an American parish under the USCCB’s rules — but they are undermining their credibility and their claims to have learned from the devastating scandal.

From October 10, 2012:

The problem is that while both men want to try to win over the critical Catholic vote, both candidates have also been at odds with the Catholic hierarchy on different issues — Biden over abortion rights and gay rights, Ryan over budget plans that critics say contravene Catholic social justice principles on the common good and caring for the poor.

From January 24, 2011:

The manifesto is the latest reaction to the shootings in Arizona and the poisonous climate of rhetoric that preceded the massacre and the equally bitter recriminations that followed. Religiously inflected language has been especially loaded, critics say.

From July 7, 2010:

Many critics say current Vatican policies are not clear as to whether a priest who sexually abuses a child should be dealt with first in internal church forums or whether he should first be reported to the civil authorities.

From January 15, 2010:

Much of that deterioration, critics say, can be traced to many of Benedict’s own actions. In previous meetings with Jewish groups, and most notably during a 2006 address at the Auschwitz concentration camp, the pope has played down the responsibility of Germans for the Holocaust and the role of Christian anti-Semitism, preferring to pin the blame on ‘a ring of criminals’– the Nazis — who he said ‘used and abused’ the German people ‘as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power.’

Either You’re a Columnist Or a Reporter

Gibson had a particularly notable encounter with these very opinionated yet curiously shy and tight-lipped critics in a September 2014 story on divorce and remarriage:

Under current church law, divorced Catholics who remarry without first obtaining a church annulment — a complicated and sometimes expensive venture — are barred from Communion because they are considered to be living in sin. Critics say the practice alienates otherwise faithful Catholics and perpetuates the stigma around divorce.

This charge was apparently considered significant enough by Religion News Service that the critic—still laboring in uncredited obscurity—got a chance to repeat in a story published in October 2014 and written by Josephine McKenna:

Under current church law, divorced Catholics who remarry without first obtaining a church annulment — a complicated and sometimes expensive venture — are barred from Communion because they are considered to be living in sin. Critics say the practice alienates otherwise faithful Catholics and perpetuates the stigma around divorce.

Those who read to the end will be unsurprised to learn that “David Gibson contributed to this story,” even if only through copy and paste.

Never has it been easier to find or quote opinions of all kinds. Blogposts, press releases, comments, tweets are all a Google search away. What reportorial goal, then, is furthered by claiming that “critics say” something without giving the names of any critics or quoting their words? I cannot think of one.

There are, however, polemical goals that the stray use of “critics say” can further: those of putting words in one’s opponents’ mouths, of inventing convenient opponents where no real ones exist. Or, on the other hand, of inserting one’s own views into a story. That such editorializing has nothing to do with straight reporting does not make it beyond certain reporters. Or so critics say.

Editor’s note: The stricken portions of this article reflect incorrect information from an online version of a Washington Post article to which this article refers. This article has been corrected accordingly with more accurate information.