Learning from the audience, and absorbing – not ignoring – criticism

My heart always jumps a bit when I see it in my Inbox.

As a television reporter, I attempt on a daily basis to condense hours’ worth of research, visuals, and interviews into a digestible 90-second story. I rarely put anything on the air until I am entirely confident in every fact and every word.

But, on rare occasions, I get feedback that says I might have missed one.

It arrives in the form of an e-mail or social media comment, and it always fills me with a distinct sense of dread. No matter my previous confidence, I always scramble to see if I have, in fact, made a mistake. For the most part, I find my original research to be correct, and I can then release a giant sigh and resume my day. If not, I feel terrible for the rest of the day.

But every now and then, such a comment leaves me thankful.

Two weeks ago we learned of a freshman at the University of Georgia who had taken part in a student-made music video for Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. The young man, we were told, was named Luke Bundrum and was deaf; the video featured a group of students performing the song using sign language. The group had already garnered attention on campus.

We loved the idea. I headed to Athens, Ga., met and interviewed Luke, spoke with his friends from the video, and returned to Atlanta with the makings of an enjoyable story. I wrote a script saying how this young man wanted to “raise awareness for the hearing-impaired”, and we aired the piece that night and posted it online to unanimous praise.

And then I saw a comment that said otherwise.

“Matt, great story. Great kid,” wrote the commenter. “Please don’t use the word “hearing impaired”. The appropriate term is “deaf” or “hard of hearing”.


This surprised me. I had been taught that “hearing-impaired” was the preferred term, and I thought I had shown sensitivity by using it in the story. I felt thrown, however, by the commenter’s certainty on the subject. As always, I headed straight to Google, where a quick search showed a variety of articles that proved her right and me wrong. I even found a terrific resource, the National Association for the Deaf, that provided a paragraph of background and explanation:

“This term is no longer accepted by most in the community but was at one time preferred, largely because it was viewed as politically correct. To declare oneself or another person as deaf or blind, for example, was considered somewhat bold, rude, or impolite. … ‘Hearing-impaired’ was a well-meaning term that is not accepted or used by many deaf and hard of hearing people.

For many people, the words ‘deaf’ and ‘hard of hearing’ are not negative. Instead, the term ‘hearing-impaired’ is viewed as negative. The term focuses on what people can’t do. It establishes the standard as ‘hearing’ and anything different as ‘impaired’, or substandard, hindered, or damaged. It implies that something is not as it should be and ought to be fixed if possible. TO be fair, this is probably not what people intended to convey by the term ‘hearing impaired’.”

After reading the research, I felt embarrassed. I had just produced a story about raising awareness for the deaf community, but in the process I had shown a lack of awareness. I could not change the video that had already been posted online, but I edited the script in the accompanying Facebook post.

I also wrote the commenter a message of thanks.

“Such notes are extremely constructive,” I said. “For those of us who cover a wide spectrum of stories, it can be difficult to know for sure the preferred or appropriate terminology, especially when we think already know.”

I then informed her of the research and exploration I described above. She responded with a message of appreciation that I had taken her words to heart.

Social media brings innumerable benefits, so many of which result from the empowerment it provides the audience. A viewer can watch my story on Facebook, which is perhaps a passive choice, but he or she can then decide on whether to share it with others or build upon it with a comment.

We reporters get presented with these moments all the time. We simply need to be willing to listen.

Too often I see examples where colleagues instantly dismiss any negative feedback, particularly if it provides a perspective different from their own. To be sure, some of those comments can be more destructive than anything, but others can educate in ways that are invaluable.

In this case, someone decided to provide a critique that will inform any future story I do about the deaf community.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

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