April 18, 2011
Should I warn restaurants before publishing my reviews?

One of the things you realize when you've been in journalism long enough is that a lot of smart people read the newspaper. Another thing you realize: an awful lot of other people don't really understand how journalism works.

I say this because of a well-meaning email I received recently from a reader. She was concerned that some of my more pointed critiques might hurt a restaurant's bottom line.

She writes (to protect the innocent and not so innocent, I will delete the names of the restaurants):

"I recently read you review of Restaurant X and it reminded of one which you wrote some time ago about Bistro Y. I have dined at both of these establishments but have no vested interest in either. In a small city and an economy in which restaurants struggle to endure a tough market, it seems your sarcasm could be better put to use somewhere else. I drive down Blank Street from time to time during the dinner hour, and if I am not mistaken there has been a considerably decrease in patrons at Bistro Y since your review.

"My point is this. It is good to review restaurants. Constructive criticism is good. Why don't you approach the proprietors or chefs of these restaurants and propose your suggestions and ideas for improvements, give them a few months to implement these and visit again before you publish your sarcastic putdown? Sacramento is not New York, Chicago or San Francisco. The dining public wants a variety of restaurants and the damage you do with your current style puts these brave, creative people at a tremendous disadvantage before they have a had a chance. "

What are we to make of her suggestion? Judging from a good number of emails I receive, a healthy percentage of people might agree with this email correspondent.

First, let's deal with sarcasm. It's not for everyone. But humor, on occasion, can be employed in the right way to make a serious point. Still, if I have a complaint about a restaurant, my points are always sincere and I always feel obligated to support my argument in some fashion, not simply make a wisecrack.

Second, is Sacramento a small city? I don't think so. And I don't think a lot of our readers want Sacramento to be treated that way. One sign of a big city is the way people looks at legitimate criticism, whether it's a theater, music or restaurant review. Not everyone in Sacramento likes criticism or appreciates the role of criticism. Those who don't like it often point to the financial damage it can do.

But let's speak to this email writer's most important point: Should a journalist be in the business of giving advice to restaurants? No. Should I warn restaurants that they are making mistakes and give them the opportunity to correct these so-called shortcoming before I publish my opinions? Again, no. And it's not even close.

Just think how that would play out if I actually did it this way. I would visit a restaurant a few times, then call the chef or owner and reveal what I found lacking. Then, I inform him or her that if the restaurant doesn't fix these things, I am going to write a rather negative review.

To the woman who emailed me, this might seem like a fair way of going about it, but it would actually be a major breach of journalism ethics and would put me in a position where, 1) I would wield too much power - and the wrong kind of power - over restaurants, 2) I would be involved in a relationship that would not allow me to appear independent and 3) I would wind up advocating for restaurants rather than look out for the interests of our readers.

Sacramento is the capital of California and the restaurants here know they are playing for keeps, that they are not going to get a pass simply so their business does not suffer. The best of our restaurants know what they are doing and those in the second and third tiers understand the rules - they benefit from the exposure a positive or mostly positive review would bring them and they may suffer somewhat from a negative review. Nearly all of them are big enough to handle the criticism and respond in whatever way they see fit. As I wrote here last week, I often end up pulling the plug on a restaurant when it simply isn't interesting enough or significant enough to be in the newspaper.

In summary, while the email I received seemed sincere and reasonable, it would be impossible to implement and, in the long run, it would be a disservice to the readers who rely on us to be independent, accurate and ethical.

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