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Chewing on stars

Post by News Tribune Staff on Dec. 27, 2007 at 8:36 am | No Comments »
December 27, 2007 8:36 am

What I do is subjective. My official job title is Columnist, not reporter. That frees me from the usual constraints of journalism — chiefly, that every assertion be backed up by precise, incontrovertible facts.

We’re thinking about some changes in Go, the News Tribune’s entertainment guide. I’m chewing on stars, and I really want to spit them into the trash.

I’m the guy who assigns star ratings to restaurants that I review. Know what? I have no scientific method. It’s all subjective.

Is a four-star restaurant really good because 80 percent of the food was good (we use a five-star system here)? Not necessarily. If the restaurant is clean, if the staff is friendly, if the music doesn’t drown out dinner conversation … those are all factored in, too. Many variables affect the final verdict.

If I had my way, I’d eliminate the star-rating system. I think stars are lazy, arcane and arbitrary. Want to know if I like something? Read the review. My opinions — good, bad, indifferent — are in there. Nuance cannot be translated via stars.

But my opinion of star ratings flies in the face of “newspaper industry research” that says readers love star ratings because they help them easily gauge the quality of a restaurant or movie or whatever is being reviewed. “Readers” like Ziggy, Mary Worth and The Amish Cook, too. So, really, let’s admit that all tastes are subjective.

I go into most restaurants ready to grant three stars. Ratings go down or up from there, depending on the variables I mentioned: cleanliness, attitude, atmosphere, quality of the food, and whatever crops up along the way.

This is life, people, not a journalism lab.

Here’s how the San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic calculates his four-star system:

In assigning stars, I try to start with a fairly objective procedure. Food is the most important component — in fact, it counts twice as much as everything else. In figuring the overall score, I double the rating for food (3.5+3.5=7 stars), add the ambience (2.5) and the service (3), which gives a total of 12.5 stars. I then divide by 4, which means it comes in a little over 3 stars. While it’s the reviewer’s decision to assign the final number of stars, when the food is higher than the other elements, we tend to bump up the stars …

His readers were quick to trash his system, noting it’s “as convoluted as how your credit card’s interest rate is figured out.”

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