Public Editor cannot be one-person panacea to reader trust problem

By Kathy English

Toronto Star

Ten years ago this month, I signed on to what would turn out to be the most challenging job of my life in journalism.

I knew that serving as the Star’s public editor would not be an easy task. It is widely regarded as the worst job in journalism and I tell you, there are days when that feels like an absolute truth.

Nevertheless, it was a role I had actually long coveted. Having worked as a reporter and feature writer at the Star in the early days of my career, I knew the Star took seriously the ombud/public editor’s work of holding its journalists to public account for accuracy, fairness and ethical journalism. In working as a journalist and journalism professor, I had long been concerned about the public perception of journalism and believed a public editor could make a difference to the credibility of journalism.

“A newspaper that chooses to employ a public editor makes a strong pledge to its readers of its intent to strive to be faithful to the enduring core values of ethical journalism,” I wrote a decade ago in my first column in this role.

I believed that then and my experience in the job, particularly the opportunity it has given me to communicate with thousands of readers about accuracy, fairness and journalistic standards, makes me believe it more today.

Clearly, I have a conflict of interest in offering a view of the decision announced by the New York Times this week to eliminate its public editor position. I would like to see more public editors and ombudsmen at news organizations, not fewer, especially when reader trust in journalism has plunged to new lows.

I don’t see any public editor anywhere as a one-person panacea to the reader trust problem. In that, I agree with Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. whose memo announcing the end of the public editor role there stated that “we all must seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers.”

Of course, a public editor cannot be the “single intermediary” between newsrooms and their readers. Trustworthy journalism begins with individual journalists who operate within strong ethical standards and news organizations that expect nothing less from them. The Star newsroom’s recently announced “trust committee” examining how to foster greater trust is, to me, a welcome step in acknowledging that reader trust is the responsibility of every journalist in this place.

But even in this time when sharp media criticism abounds on social media, 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.

I know journalists are often too busy or too defensive to take time to respond to questioning or critical readers. And certainly, many simply ignore the noise of social media, given the harassing tone it too often takes. They may not like it when I press them for answers on behalf of those reader/critics but they understand how the public editor’s office has long operated here, and for the most part they co-operate.

Yes, it can be a messy business to be critical of the Star’s journalism in the pages of the Star itself when significant lapses occur. And certainly, my judgments have not always been entirely right – as both readers and the Star’s journalists have made clear to me through these past 10 years. But I have learned that the job is not about keeping everyone happy; it’s doing my best to make honest and informed judgments about whether the Star’s journalism meets its stated high standards.

I am biased, to be sure, but I believe that for the most part this system of accountability still works for Star readers. The two-person public editor’s office (myself and public editor associate Maithily Panchalingam) communicates with thousands of readers annually, mainly through email. We take seriously our mandate to explain journalism to readers and the concerns of readers to journalists. We investigate a great many complaints about mistakes and journalistic misdemeanors and publish several hundred corrections each year to address factual errors.

While the Times has had a public editor only since 2003, having launched the role in response to an infamous plagiarism scandal, this role has existed at the Star for 45 years. On May 6, 1972, a Page 1 article reported that Beland H. Honderich, then president and publisher, announced that “Star readers will now have their personal representative in the newsroom. It will give readers one central person to deal with on all matters involving fairness or accuracy.”

All these years later, through immense and continuing changes brought about by digital disruption, the public editor role still seems to me to be powerful evidence of this organization’s ongoing commitment to accountability and transparency – key factors in journalistic credibility and reader trust.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star on 2 June 2017.

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