Public editors disappear as media distrust grows

Shortly after The New York Times eliminated its public editor position, BuzzFeed asked: Why have a public editor when Twitter will do it for free?

In an attempt to answer the question, BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith talked to Margaret Sullivan, a former New York Times public editor who is now a media critic at The Washington Post. (The Post got rid of its ombudsman in 2013.) Although Sullivan told Smith that it’s “worrisome” for the Times not to have a public editor, she questioned whether most readers even understood what she did.

Smith would have had to look hard to find a current public editor or ombudsman left at an American news organization to ask whether social has made the public editor role obsolete. While public editor positions are increasing in other parts of the world, US news ombudsmen have all but disappeared.

Of the major national media outlets, only NPR still has an ombudsman, a reader’s representative who is paid by the news organization to raise issues from an outsider’s perspective and to hold it accountable. PBS is looking for a part-time or full-time ombudsman to replace Mike Getler, who retired in May—the same month that the Times eliminated its public editor position.

Most regional and small news organizations that had ombudsmen or public editors long ago cut the positions in the industry-wide downsizing. The Kansas City Star held out until last year, when it moved its longtime ombudsman to the editorial board and made him a community engagement editor. The Toledo Blade in Ohio, a family-owned paper with a daily circulation of about 100,000, is one of the last remaining papers with an ombudsman.

My job is not to get things fixed, but I do that anyway. Anything to help the cause. My job is to explain things to people.

I asked Jack Lessenberry, the Blade’s ombudsman since 1998, the same question BuzzFeed raised, about social media stepping into the ombudsman’s role. “No!” he tells me. “People on their cell phones tweeting don’t substitute for journalists. Yes, the Internet’s been useful. But there is a lot of the Internet that is writing on bathroom walls. You need a trained journalist to look at things.”

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At a time when the president of the United States is leading a revolt against the American media and attacks against journalists are up—when mistakes, which journalists have always made, are now assumed to be intentional—the decline of reader representatives across the American media landscape worries Lessenberry.

“We grow up thinking that everyone knows in print that the story in the right-hand corner is the most important, and understands the difference between op-ed pages and news pages,” he says. “My job is not to get things fixed, but I do that anyway. Anything to help the cause. My job is to explain things to people.”

Nonetheless, newsroom budgets across the country are severely constrained. If news organizations need to regain the public’s trust, is a public editor the best use of finite resources? “Something is lost, especially in this day and age when people are suspicious of what the press is doing,” says Lyle Muller, executive director and editor of IowaWatch, a non-profit investigative news organization. “We’ve made errors all of our lives. But [now] the attention is and the narrative is that we made a mistake because we’re out to get you or we did it on purpose.”

Alicia Shepard, a former NPR ombudsman, says this is precisely why media organizations need public editors. “I think it’s very uncomfortable for news organizations to have these positions, but it speaks volumes to their confidence in their work when they do,” she says.

CNN has a standards editor, Steven A. Holmes, whose job is to uphold the network’s ethics and policies for accuracy. A standards editor is a different position than an ombudsman, as The New York Times noted in this 2005 conversation between its public editor and its standards editor. Even though it eliminated the public editor position, The New York Times has a standards editor, Phil Corbett, who is, along with several other editors, “dedicated to enforcing standards, ensuring fairness and accuracy, responding to reader complaints and correcting errors,” says Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha.

After CNN retracted a story about a Senate investigation into Donald Trump associate Anthony Scaramucci, Shepard called on CNN to investigate and the offer a public account of where its journalism fell short. In her story for USA Today, Shepard argued that the network “owes journalists and the public a detailed explanation of what went wrong,” and called transparency “the new objectivity in this media climate.”

A detailed account of CNN’s retracted story is a job for a public editor, which the network does not have. “I’ve said for a couple of decades now the news media does a terrible job of explaining how it works and what are the internal safeguards,” Shepard tells CJR.

 

FOR 12 YEARS, DEREK DONOVAN was the ombudsman of The Kansas City Star, fielding complaints and questions from readers. He was the reader’s voice in the newsroom, he says, and although he reported to the editor, he was never censored. His public column—which tackled such issues as why the paper published a photograph of two young skateboarders who weren’t wearing helmets and what was behind a review of a Van Halen rock concert—was only copy-edited.

You are not an organ of the newsroom. In a lot of ways you are like IA for the police department. When you make a mistake, you own up to it.”

“The person in that role first and foremost does not use ‘we.’” he says. “You take the reader’s point of view. You are not an organ of the newsroom. In a lot of ways you are like IA [internal affairs] for the police department. When you make a mistake, you own up to it.”

In the first years of his job, Donovan says, the public telephone line to reach him rang non-stop for the five hours it was kept open. Then email and Facebook comments took over. “Our relationship with readers changed,” he says. “Certainly we love our print reader, but the conversation happens on social media now.”

That said, journalists make the mistake to validate Twitter too often. “Journalists are too wrapped up in Twitter,” he says.

Donovan, who is now the community engagement editor at the Star, says he hasn’t found more distrustful of the paper than they used to be. “Social media in particular gives the cranks such a bullhorn,” he says. “They aren’t the majority.”

He adds, “We’re in a really weird world right now.”

 

KATHY ENGLISH IS PUBLIC EDITOR of the Toronto Star, a Canadian daily newspaper. The Star values the public accountability that English brings to the paper.

“It’s part of the DNA here,” she says of the Star’s commitment to having a public editor. “If there is some kind of mess-up, I go into the newsroom and ask what happened, talk to editors and complaintants and come to an assessment about what we need to do. It’s so ingrained here people know they need to talk to me.”

In a column responding to the end of the public editor role at The New York Times, English acknowledged that a public editor cannot solve the problem of reader trust. But with criticism of the media so rampant, and amplified by social media, English argued that it is crucial that readers have a representative in the newsroom.

“I continue to see the benefit in readers having an individual, independent of the newsroom, who is empowered by the organization to assess the legitimacy of readers’ complaints, seek answers for readers and hold journalists to account for lapses in standards,” she wrote.

English is a member of the Organization of News Ombudsman. No Americans serve on the group’s top leadership, which is made up primarily of journalists in Canada, Europe and Australia. “The role is growing in other parts of the world,” she says of public editors.

English remembers a time when she connected with ombudsmen from the bigger US dailies, including the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune. But even a decade ago, at the position’s arguable peak, American Journalism Review explored why there weren’t more ombudsmen, especially given that readers were demanding more of news organizations while trusting them less. “In a nation with 1,500 daily newspapers, three network news operations, three cable news networks and countless radio and TV stations and Web sites, a roster of fewer than 40 ombudsmen hardly signifies a groundswell,” the AJR noted at the time.

That period in American journalism almost seems quaint now, says Don Wycliff, one of the last public editors at the Chicago Tribune, where he served from 2000 to 2006. (Tim McNulty was ombudsman for two-and-a-half years after Wycliff, then took a buyout from the paper and left in August 2008. He was never replaced.)

“I don’t know what shape the position needs to have but having somebody internally who is a sharp critic—a perceptive critique, helps build trust,” Wycliff says. “Nowadays I’m not sure whether anything can build up the kind of trust the media once had.”

And that’s really it.

The segment of the population that believes all news is fake isn’t going to be convinced otherwise by a public editor. Much of the population doesn’t understand the difference between news and editorial. It’s hard to imagine how an individual paid by a news organization will have credibility with a public that, for instance, accuses NPR of propaganda for tweeting the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July.

“I’m sure a lot of people don’t care how an error came to be or how something excellent was done,” Wycliff says. “That’s bigger than a public editor.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.