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Honesty in Reporting


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I had an experience writing a story for a local paper, where I reviewed a restaurant and said some negative things. They weren't all that negative. Basically, I told the reader to avoid certain dishes, because they weren't very good. Aside from these dishes, I gave a glowing review. The editor returned the piece to me, saying he couldn't publish negative comments, in a restaurant review.

I rewrote it without the offending remarks. However, I'm curious to know what the policy is at the LA Times, regarding not-so-positive statements in reviews. I can't recall seeing anything negative or cautionary in their reviews.

Also, is this a legal issue? Are newspapers worried about getting sued over a critical remark in their paper?

One of the reasons I love egullet is that I get the unvarnished truth from people. People here will tell you if a restaurant stinks or if it's a winner, and why. They'll tell you what their favorite dishes are, and which ones to avoid. If one's hands are bound by an editorial preference, what good is the final review? If someone goes to that restaurant and tries one of the "bad" dishes, am I not ultimately culpable? It is a rare restaurant that is good at everything.

Thanks for your participation in this Q&A. I have enjoyed reading all your posts here, and in the California forum.

I love cold Dinty Moore beef stew. It is like dog food! And I am like a dog.


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No negative comments? Hoo boy, you haven't been talking to LA restaurateurs. We certainly have no policy like that and our restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, is very, very tough (and, I think, very, very accurate). The only thing close to that is that in our weekly Counter Intelligence review, we almost never slam a place. The theory is that these are neighborhood restaurants and if they are really horrible, there are enough good places that we just don't write about them. That is not to say that we're uncritical. I think one of the best things a restaurant critic can do is let people know how to have a good meal at a restaurant that might not be uniformly wonderful. (You'll do best if you stick with these types of dishes; avoid those types of dishes.)

That said, I think one of the talents of a really good critic is knowing when to break out the stick and when to use the carrot. Restaurant scenes are cyclical and applying the hammer to new restaurants when the scene is in a down cycle benefits no one. Sure, point out what is wrong, but concentrate on what can be right. In up cycles, the opposite is true. When folks are getting a little too full of themselves, when everyone is going to restaurants, that's the time to offer a little reality therapy if it is due--both to the restaurants and to the customers, who might need to be reminded that the hot spot of the week might still have some improvement possible.

That's the situation at the Times and, I think, at most major newspapers. When you get down to the locals, everyone makes up their own rules. As a critic, you have to decide whether you can live within them or not. My advice would be to stick around for a while, learn what you can, acquire a reputation and then once you have some chips on the table, ask the bosses to revisit the policy. I probably wouldn't let this go much beyond 6 months, though.

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I understand the rules involving reviews as far as paying and so forth, thanks to your answers to others.

I would like to know the criteria for selecting the places that are reviewed and if there is a hard and fast rule about how many visits are sufficient for a review? Are the choices up to the reviewer or does the editorial staff make these decisions and send the reviewer on his or her merry way?

And as a follow up, when a reviewer feels that a place really deserves to be slagged, is there a second opinion taken or does the ruling stand?



Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Wow! good questions, all.

How do you select restaurants to review? Usually, we give a restaurant at least 6 weeks to get its act together before it is reviewed. Other than that, it's the old "newsworthy" standard. Is there a reason people should know about this restaurant? Is it someplace people are talking about and want to know about? Is it unknown and really good? Is it hyped and not so good? Does it in some way reflect something important about the community? It's a matrix of these questions that guide the decision what to review.

How many visits? We visit all restaurants at least three times before we write a review. That is enough to get over the first impressions and to decrease the possibility of "just a bad night." If we're going to write a negative review, we'll usually go a couple times more just to be sure we're being fair (the restaurant reviewer's paradox: if it's bad, you get to go more often!).

Assign vs. self-assign: The same as with other stories, it's a combination. I think the editor's role is more "advise and consent" when it comes to reviews and the critic gets a tremendous amount of leeway about what he/she wants to review. That said, occasionally the editor will have an idea for a review (usually more along the lines of a theme or trend analysis rather than just one specific restaurant). At that point, there will be a discussion.

Slagging? That's up to the critic, though I would think that a wise critic would take a boss along for at least one dinner before he really slammed someplace. There's nothing like forcing them to share the pain to help them more adequately answer all those nasty phone calls.

I want to be sure to make the point that this is the way things are done at the LA Times. I think it's very fair. But that's not to say that's the only way to do things or even the very best way. Different papers, different editors, different critics, different circumstances may dictate different approaches. Even on something as basic as whether we pay for meals. We are extremely fortunate at the Times to have a budget for restaurant reviews that, while not bottomless, is sufficient. Other publications might not.

To be honest (and this will probably be considered heretical among my colleagues), I don't think paying for meals is a litmus test of a critic's honesty. I do think being "hosted" makes it harder to be honest about a review, but I also think there are critics who righteously pay for everything and are less than honest in their reviews as well. It's like the Stockholm Syndrome, pretty soon, some critics start believing they represent the restaurant industry rather than the reading public. You should be very clear about where your loyalties lie. When it becomes anyone other than the guy who pays 50 cents to read them, you need to rethink what you're doing.

Let me be clear about one more thing: On this as on all other things in this Q&A, I am speaking only for myself and do not represent the official position of the LA Times, whatever it may be.

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No negative comments? Hoo boy, you haven't been talking to LA restaurateurs. We certainly have no policy like that and our restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, is very, very tough (and, I think, very, very accurate).

I think S. Irene does a great job, in part because she doesn't just write fluff pieces, but is willing to say negative things about a restaurant. (I also usually find myself in agreement with her views, so that may also account for my liking her.) I have felt, however, that over the last couple years, she seems to be more positive in her reviews and tends to give higher ratings. Is it only my imagination? (I speculated to myself that people at the paper suggested she tone things down a bit. Or perhaps she's just mellowing with age.)

One reason local papers may not want to include negative reviews is that they depend on advertising from restaurants.

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