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Explaining POLITICO Europe’s overreaction to Jon Worth’ blog post: an explorative approach

Fellow Euroblogger Jon Worth* this morning published a commentary on Politico Europe, the news outlet I let my European Studies summer school students read every morning this August. What followed needs some serious academic attention, and serious attention is what you are going to get in this blog post.

Having seen Jon blog for years now*, his article was quite a balanced text (he can write stuff that is quite strong and one-sided, believe me). His research exceeded the empirical work some students would invest in a term paper. Yes, the post was opinionated, but if you’ve ever seen the readership statistics for a balanced blog post, you never want to write one again. So don’t blame a blogger for being opinionated.

What followed was a micro-shitstorm from at least three Politico employees. Let’s say, their contributions were particularly opinionated. Not in a way that Jon’s post was opinionated. More like: ‘Hitler, Fraudster, You kill Journalists and their babies!’ – opinionated.

As an academic, I should neither participate in this name-calling nor should I spend time with the inductive speculations about why such an overreaction happened. These inductive speculations by now are already harming the tweet-credibility of Politico. Instead, I will explore potential theoretical explanations and  empirical insights from fellow researchers.

To start with, there are very few academic articles citing “Politico Europe” and nobody has yet dedicated an article specifically to them. This means, they are not yet like the Financial Times.

In the absence of such analyses, I have to resort to more general theoretical models for understanding what went wrong and what created the overreaction and micro-shitsorm.

I don’t start with the assumption that “discontent [with journalism] is not unfounded, faced with scarcely specialized coverage, secondary sources, rudimentary texts and genders, agenda marginalization, etc.” (Gross 2014). Instead, I compare the reactions of the editors and journalists of Politico to the reactions that companies show to consumer complaints online.

In a study by Ma, Sun and Kekre (2015) in Marketing Science 34(5), pp. 627-645, titled “The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease—An Empirical Analysis of Customer Voice and Firm Intervention on Twitter“, the authors consider that “customers form their perceptions about the firm based on three sources of information: their own experience of the firm’s products and services, the firm’s responses to their complaints, and their exposure to the opinions expressed by others” (p. 631)

What Jon did with his initial blog post was effectively to write a certain type of complaint, already based on the opinions he had sought from others. However, the study finds that while a positive response to the complaints from Jon would have increased his positive view of Politico, it would have meant that he would have continued to complain in the future:

Although active service interventions would improve the firm’s relationships with customers, they also raise the customers’ expectations of being helped. This makes them more likely to complain in the future.” (p. 639). The study also finds, quite surprisingly, that “a customer with more followers is more likely to be influential“, and Jon has over 15,000 followers.

Supposedly, this is what the Politico staffers had also concluded. (And like me, they didn’t have the time to follow the argument of the paper any further or read any other theoretical models.)

For them, reacting positively to Jon’s complaints would have only resulted in more complaints, and with Jon being quite influential, he would have drawn even more complaints and negative feelings from the rest of the community. Alienating him thus seemed to be a theoretically sound and empirically backed-up solution against a spiral of future complaints. Purely rational behaviour by the Politico staff.

An alternative explanation can be found in a 1994 article in Gifted Child Today 17(3), 24-25, by Mendaglio:

A recurring theme in the counseling of gifted children and their families is the child’s sensitivity to criticism. In some cases, parents and teachers have reported that a child overreacts to any comment or even to genuine displays of interest in the child’s work. Why do some gifted children seem to react disproportionately to feedback even when it is presented in a constructive and caring manner by others?”

Knowing that Politico Europe is still a very young news outlet (not even a year old) and that according to Politico’s overall mission statement it is “set out to assemble the most talented and interesting collection of journalists“, comparing it to a gifted child seems theoretically sound.

Yet, in the words of Mendaglio, “some children develop a rather distorted view of what it means to be gifted. Some make the assumption that being gifted means knowing everything and doing everything right-perfectly-the first time. Such beliefs are evidenced in perfectionism and high expectations of self.” In other words, the high expectations that the young gifted child Politico Europe has in itself were put out to an extreme when faced with the criticism from the father-like figure of Jon Worth (who is around for a decade now). Just a a gifted child would react to criticism from their parents, so did the young online outlet to the older one.

In addition, “Gifted children are tuned into the subtleties of events. They seem to detect, and respond to, the cues associatedwith non-verbal communication.” For Politico staffers, Jon’s rather balanced article therefore was not just what was written in plain sight. They read between the lines, inferring that Jon was actually more critical than he tried to be. This is because “they may not be accurately assessing or interpreting [his] internal state. Since they may not be aware of the processes they are using, they cannot begin to evaluate the accuracy of their con- clusions.

To sum this up, “The strength of the reaction is largely driven by the internal experiences, and the external criticism is straw that breaks the camel’s back.

We should therefore not over-interpret the reaction of Politico Europe. They are a bunch of honestly gifted journalists, and they are engaging in quite a new type of journalistic operation. Being gifted and having such high expectations, they are probably highly self-critical, and external criticism makes them release pressure built up internally. If, in addition, their theoretical assumptions about the online reactions of their customers may not yet be fully in tune with the empirical reality, then we get the type of over-the-top reaction we saw today.

My hypothesis would be, however, that, with age, the gifted child will start understanding that not every criticism is ill-meaning, that not every poke at its abilities is an attack on its qualities and that once the customer complaint section of the outlet is fully functional, Politico Europe will be just another media company.

Hopefully, and this is an honest hope, instead of an overreactive gifted child, Politico Europe will be a media outlet holding those in power in the EU to account with continuous and investigative journalism. If they do so well, they will have no problem living with the occasional criticism from independent bloggers who get more pleasure from appearing high on the Google search list than actually endangering the multi-million Euro operations of transnational media corporations.

PS: I excuse to my fellow academics for misusing and potentially even misinterpreting their research for the sake of a few cheap jokes in a blog post.

* Disclaimer: I know Jon online since I started Euroblogging in 2008. We’ve done a number of things together, including advising the European Economic and Social Committee on social media issues (what an idea…?!) and co-editing (with numerous others) (now down, but what an idea!). In academic terms, this is like running a journal (peer-reviewed!) as co-editors and explaining to fellow academics how to best get published (just do everything like we like it to be!).

(updated with minor edits)

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