The way we consume cultural commentary is regularly shifting, so shouldn’t the questions we ask of our go-to media sources follow suit?
While the enduring death knell of print journalism continues to toll, the popularity of personal blogs and online networking sites such as Twitter put theatre criticism’s existing ecology in constant flux. This is by no means a bad thing… unless it goes unchecked. After a term spent teaching eighteen bright-eyed, burgeoning theatre critics at Royal Holloway, University of London, I’m compelled to question the ethical terrain these junior writers are about to encounter.
Amidst the fluid landscape of contemporary journalism is embedded criticism, a relatively new concept in arts and culture coverage. An 'it’ topic in recent critical discourse, the embedded critic audits rehearsals for a pre-determined period and produces a written response based on the experience. Since earning a living wage has always been a struggle for freelance writers and the current economic climate has worsened the situation, embedded criticism offers an alternate way to make rent (or at least a portion of it).
As featured in The Stage and various blogs, discussions exploring the embedded critic’s role have largely focused on approaches to documenting process and responses to artistic praxis. Nonetheless, these arguments have consistently avoided directly addressing a central ethical question at the core of embedded criticism: who dictates the parameters of what the critic writes by signing his or her paycheck? While grants and publications sometimes contribute to the writer’s income during an embedded stint, there are also situations when the embedded critic is being employed by the same company he or she is ‘critiquing’. At its core, the latter isn't criticism: it's advertising.
Case in point: after reading a trusted critic’s insightful and decidedly positive response to an embedded stint auditing rehearsals for a local company’s upcoming production, I found myself genuinely excited about the show and eager to book tickets online. As I rooted through my wallet for a credit card, the (rather obvious) ball dropped—since the post was featured on the theatre company’s website, there was more at play than just the critic's enthusiasm. When I followed up by asking said critic (an acquaintance) the incredibly uncomfortable but, to my mind, essential questions of who funded his enthusiastic online post and if the funding came with content stipulations, his responses left me feeling manipulated and hardly keen to hand over my hard-earned entertainment coin to the theatre company in question.
While I'm well aware of how difficult it is to make money writing criticism and commend writers who have found a way to make their craft sustainable, I'd argue that the word 'critic' rings false when a theatre company has final editorial control over the content authored by an embedded critic on the company website. As well, when content funded by a theatre company appears on an embedded critic’s personal blog without signaling how it differs from any other post, the use of the term ‘critic’ should be questioned.
This issue is part of the longstanding pursuit of ethical standards in journalism, focusing on the responsibility writers and publications have to their readers when featuring advertorial content. (The term 'advertorial' describes advertising formatted to look like editorial content).
In the UK, the Committee of Advertising Practice has written and maintains the Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (CAP Code), which represents industry standards for all advertisers, agencies and media. The code states that “Markets and publishers must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications; for example, by heading them ‘advertisement feature’.” Given these rules, doesn’t it follow that articles purchased by theatre companies with the objective of selling tickets should signal their advertorial status?
Embedded criticism has a long way to go and further obstacles to confront, e.g., try convincing an actor that the critic seated front and centre during rehearsals isn’t judging performances or asking a critic who’s spent the last three weeks warming up to a cast how eager they are to critique the production. This being said, in the case of embedded positions that aren’t funded by the same bodies they interrogate, this new form of arts coverage offers enriching possibilities for current approaches to engaging with theatre praxis.
Nonetheless, when it comes to embedded ‘criticism’ bought by a theatre company and appearing without the advertorial indicators required by the Committee of Advertising Practice, ethics and integrity are jeopardized. Like most informed cultural consumers, I feel entitled to know when I'm reading journalistic criticism, with all the biases, affinities and publication politics this entails, and when I'm reading promotional material authored by a critic, which is subject to a given theatre company's particular objectives and marketing goals. I’d argue that in cases like the latter, the reader is ethically entitled to know who’s really in bed with the embedded critic.