“The Grumpy Scold in the House”

The Public Editor Role at the Asahi Shimbun

What is the Public Editor doing?  An interim report on The Asahi Shimbun’s PE

By Yumiko Harashima/ Staff Writer Asahi Shimbun Op-Ed Section

“The grumpy scold in the house” “The loneliest job in the newsroom”

News ombudsmen or public editors (PE) are sometimes described this way in the Japanese news industry. However, still not much is known about its role, nor even its existence. In the spring of 2015, The Asahi Shimbun became the first Japanese media organization to establish a PE system, though, in and out of the paper, I have been often asked “what is the PE doing?”.

From the beginning of the system up until August 2018, I was a staff member of the PE’s Office. I have closely watched and supported the various activities, such as planning PE meetings held about once a week, as well as the “Asu eno hodo shingikai” (Deliberative council on news reporting for tomorrow) meetings held three times a year. It was established in spring 2016. Discussions are held between the PE and Asahi representatives based on articles and the views presented by readers on specific themes that are selected beforehand for each meeting. Once or twice a year, readers, such as page monitors of the newspaper or those who have sent letters to the editor, or scholars are invited to join the discussion. Past themes were elections, corrections and apologies, reporting using anonymous or real names, reporting seeking solutions to specific problems and gender issues.

I have also helped editing the column “From the Public Editor” written by the four PEs on a rotating basis. It is, in principle, published on the third Tuesday of every month. The columns are on the PE page at (http://t.asahi.com/pble) within the corporate site of The Asahi Shimbun.

Diversity of ombudsmen

A wide range of individuals serve as news ombudsmen today, including executives in various media outlets, such as newspapers, TV, radio stations and online news, well-known freelance journalists and scholars. A common task is to check the contents of articles in response to opinions and objections raised by readers and viewers. The ombudsmen go on to state their views on the accuracy, fairness and balance of the articles. However, there is a wide variety in how the system actually operates.

Tarmu Tammerk, a former ONO president, and a former ombudsman for the public broadcasting company in Estonia, said, “Each country and media organization has to find a suitable format of the ombudsman for itself. There are a lot of variations all over the world. No ombudsman or public editor is the same among ONO members.”

ONO currently has 55 full members from 24 countries ranging from Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia. Asahi is the only member from Japan. As an organization, ONO provides a number of programs, such as reporting and exchanging views on articles which provoked protests and how to respond back; discussing reporting in the digital age; hosting annual conferences and seminars; issuing statements in relation to social incidents and problems involving the media.

Ordinarily, views are exchanged through e-mails while columns and statements are released on the official website. A recent exchange of e-mails concerned how to respond to criticism from those who deny science articles related to climate change. The initial e-mail asked, “I would very much like to know if you have looked at similar issues. Should we disregard what we see as hidden agendas and do our work as we used to do even in such cases?”

Ombudsmen from other countries sent in their views, advice and encouragement, with one writing “you are not obliged to give weight to opinions that have no basis in fact” while another wrote “I can take up to a maximum of three months to investigate complaints with such a wide scope or a large number of questions grouped into one issue.”

One advice presented was that you “can’t do more than that and remain sane!”

Tammerk, the former ONO president, said, “It is said the ombudsman/public editor has a lonely job. There emerges a need for discussion with people who do a similar job in another country.”

Theme for this year’s annual conference ‘Building Trust’

ONO’s main event is the annual conference.This year it was held June 4-6 at the Institute Beeld en Geluid in Hilversum, the Netherlands, where many Dutch media organizations are based. The main theme was “Building Trust: Tools and Ideas for Ombudsmen, Public Editors and Standards Editors to rebuild public belief in news media.”

Thirty-four ombudsmen and PE from 20 countries gathered and took up an issue from last year about fake news and media bashing, and analyzed the current situation of a divided public opinion in many countries and exchanged ideas on how media could build trust.

The keynote address of the first day’s session was titled “How can transparency standards help journalism regain credibility?” The speech focused on The Trust Project, which was designed to issue a certification guaranteeing quality to online news articles to allow readers to determine if the article they read on digital media was reliable. A “T” mark, using the initial for trust, is issued to an article by media and journalists participating in the project if it is judged to be trustworthy based on eight indicators defined by the project.

The project was initiated by the American journalist and senior director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, Sally Lehrman. As of June, more than 75 media organizations around the world cooperated in the project, including The Washington Post and The Economist of Britain. Technological cooperation is also being undertaken with social networking service platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Indicators necessary for trust

The eight trust indicators are:

  • Best Practices

What are the news outlet’s standards? Who funds it? What is the outlet’s mission? Plus commitments to ethics, diverse voices, accuracy, making corrections and other standards.

  • Author/Reporter Expertise

Who made this? Details about the journalist, including their expertise and other stories they have worked on.

  • Type of Work

What is this? Labels to distinguish opinion, analysis and advertiser (or sponsored) content from news reports.

  • Citations and References

What’s the source? For investigative or in-depth stories, access to the sources behind the facts and assertions.

  • Methods

How was it built? Also for in-depth stories, information about why reporters chose to pursue a story and how they went about the process.

  • Locally Sourced?

Was the reporting done on the scene, with deep knowledge about the local situation or community? Let’s you know when the story has local origin or expertise.

  • Diverse Voices

What are the newsroom’s efforts and commitments to bringing in diverse perspectives? Readers noticed when certain voices, ethnicities, or political persuasions were missing.

  • Actionable Feedback

Can we participate? A newsroom’s efforts to engage the public’s help in setting coverage priorities, contributing to the reporting process, ensuring accuracy and other areas. Readers want to participate and provide feedback that might alter or expand a story.

The project was based on the results of interviews with citizens for over more than two years in the United States and Europe and was constructed from the perspective of what factors would be required for an article to be considered reliable.

Keiko Kojima, the Asahi PE who attended the conference, wrote about The Trust Project in her column published in the June 26, 2018, titled, “Attending Ombudsmen annual conference/ To build trust, article certification mark.”

In her column, she wrote, “Lehrman said ‘transparency was important to recover trust.’ She added there was a need to clarify the process behind the appearance of an article to the public and to listen to readers and viewers in order to create a good relationship. Regardless of how hard the media argues one-sidedly about the reliability of its articles, it would be meaningless unless it was presented in a way that people could easily understand.”

Kojima also had advice for Asahi in her column and wrote, “The PE’s role is important as to express opinions from a third-party perspective in determining whether adequate communication is taking place between readers and the media organization. The role of news organizations today is to make use of the PE system, and also aggressively provide more materials that will allow readers to make their own judgements on the information they receive.”

Other topics discussed at the conference included the role of ombudsmen in the media, how the European Union is dealing with fake news, how to maintain sound journalism while also using artificial intelligence and methods available to help ombudsmen deal with the stress from their jobs.

The ombudsman for the Danish public broadcaster participating for the third time said, “The conference always exceeds expectations. In this conference, examples of how other media organizations have tried to build trust provided new perspective. I hope this conference can one day be held in Japan.”

PE Kojima said, “At a time when trust in established media is wavering, people are now easily believing rumors they hear around them. The ombudsmen from various countries shared a sense of crisis. While it will be difficult to have readers and viewers understand standards of news reporting, I also believe that it is a challenge that is worthy of a serious effort. It was a very meaningful conference.”

The New York Times eliminates PE post

Will there be a future for news ombudsmen? I raised the question because there was huge attention in May 2017, when The New York Times eliminated its public editor post established in 2003. Then-publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said “Today, followers on social media and Internet readers are jointly being cautious and powerful modern age observers than any individual could be”.

ESPN, the U.S. sports channel, followed this spring to eliminate its PE post running since 2005.

I asked Esther Enkin, then president of ONO at the June conference, whether eliminating ombudsmen or PE was a global trend, and if the positions were no longer needed in the Internet age. She said that in North America, the whole media industry, especially local newspapers are facing business difficulties and ombudsmen posts are declining. Given the choice, maintaining the employment of staffs will be a higher priority. However in other regions of the world, there are no decline noticeable. In a more chaotic world today, the need for ombudsmen is rather increasing.

I also mailed to Bjarne Schilling, who moved up from vice president to president of ONO this summer, and asked him of his view. He responded, “We think that it is more important than ever that quality media have a system of self-regulation. Having public editors/ombudsmen and standards editors is the way to safeguard journalistic principles of transparency and fairness in reporting, independently dealing with complaints and reviewing editorial performance, thus demonstrating that we genuinely care about and respond to public concerns about how we are serving the public and fulfilling our role in a democratic society.”

Since Asahi was first in Japan to introduce the PE system to serve as a representative of the readers, there were no role models within the company and the country. The PE’s Office have worked with the PEs to find the best way to gain understanding of the system in and out of the paper. In that process, I often felt unsure, troubled and filled with regret. However at the ONO conference, I met with more experienced veteran ombudsmen from various countries who said they received angry phone calls from reporters yelling “You idiot!”, and faced hostility and pressure from readers and organizations. That made me realize that despite the differences in country, media and experience, the solidarity of the ombudsmen (and the supporting staff) are all adjoining.

The Asahi’s PE born out of reflection

I would now like to introduce the Asahi PE system. Reflecting on a series of problems in 2014, it started in spring 2015 with the objective of reflecting voices outside into the reporting of Asahi.

Nakamura, the first internal-PE, currently the General Manager, looked back and said, “The PE system was born with expectations that it would serve as a role like a compass whether if Asahi has fallen into a self-righteous thinking and perspective, and if whether it is following the three principles for revivification.”

There were no media organizations at that time in Japan with a PE position, therefore designing the system and the organization, planning management, all started from scratch.

He added, “We conducted research as much as possible on various organizations and practices in Japan and abroad.” That included the various institutions Asahi had established, such as the Page Examiner’s Office[i] and the Advisory Press Council.[ii]

In other countries, there is usually only one individual news ombudsman for each company or organization. However, Asahi has four individuals as PEs, from both inside and outside of the paper, in order to better reflect a diverse sense of values and opinions on its reporting. Their term is one year, but appointments can be renewed.

Being independent from the newsroom, the PE daily monitors views collected by the Asahi’s Customer Office, opinions expressed by page monitors[iii], comments found on the Internet, and examines the articles on print and digital versions of Asahi. As a role of bridging the newsroom and the readers, the PE transmits their views to the newsroom and asks for explanations and improvements in reporting at the “PE Meeting”[iv] and the “Asu eno hodo shingikai” (Asushin).

The PEs also write, on a rotating basis, a column “From the Public Editor” that appears on the Opinion section. Each PE writes on themes or articles of their interest after asking questions to the relevant newsroom executives or deputy editors.

There are a number of companies and organizations that have sections where the employees examine articles and programs produced by its media, or have committees composed of third-party members. However, Asahi’s PE checks the entire range of reporting in both print and digital form while reviewing daily on the various views submitted from in and out of the paper, including the subjects of the articles. Face –to face discussions with newsroom members are held almost once a week. The operations of the PE are very wide in range and very in-depth.

Some may feel Asahi’s PE system is nothing but a formality. However, in fact, while there were occasions when the PE encouraged the newsroom, there were also times of harsh verbal sparring. Practices, which the PM’s advice made a change, have been accumulated.

‘Self-disclosure also required from reporters’

When the opinions of the newsroom and the PE contradicts, the PE can print their views in their column and explain what led to the difference.

One such example is the column by PE Makoto Yuasa published April 17, 2018, titled, “Thinking ‘with readers’/ I waited in vain for self-disclosure from reporters.” It began with a striking first sentence. “I exchanged views with Shiro Nakamura, General Editor and concurrent Managing Editor of the Tokyo Head Office, but we couldn’t engage in a meaningful discussion.“ The column touched upon Asahi’s reporting stance on the issue of long working hours.

On reporting debates in the Diet on the discretionary working system, PE Yuasa expected an article where the reporters reveal how they work, and claim that introducing the discretionary working system will not help shorten the long working hours. He pointed that no such article appeared.

He acknowledged that working practices at Asahi were mentioned in an article on July 9, 2017, but when reporting on the death by overwork of a Japan Broadcasting Corp (NHK) reporter, no such mention accompanied.

Yuasa went on to write, “I have frequently mentioned this topic in various meetings, but no preparations were made.” He pointed to Asahi’s pledge of being a media organization ‘thinking together, creating together’ with its readers.“It is difficult thinking together with people who do not self-disclose.”

Shigeo Matsumura, then-internal PE (currently head of Asahi’s Institute of Journalism), responded to Yuasa’s criticism in the next column that appeared in June 5, 2018, titled “Playing catch with our readers/While picking up balls hard to catch.”He wrote, “Having worked as a reporter for 35 years with the belief that ‘newspaper reporters are stagehands,’ I am part of the generation that is slightly perplexed by requests to ‘speak out as the main actor.’ At the same time, I also feel now is a time when we have to emphasize our stance of ‘creating together’ with readers as well as focusing on the reality that our readers want.”

He added, “For fiscal 2018, we will make every effort so that this (PE) system can give readers a better actual sense that they are involved in creating together the paper and turn it into a ‘square’ for playing catch where even balls difficult to catch are picked up and both sides can feel the warmth of each other.”

Expansion and future of the PE system in Japan

Shortly thereafter, on June 24, 2018, the seventh Asushin meeting was held. We invited four readers from around the country to discuss with the PE and representatives of the various news sections if Asahi had truly become a paper creating together with its readers and had recovered trust in the three-and-a-half years since the system started.

Moreover, in fiscal 2017, ten sessions were held in which Asahi employees, readers and heads of local distributors for Asahi, directly exchanged views with the PE  to deepen understanding of the system. Through such steady activities, I think fewer people are now asking me “what is the PE doing?”

A survey conducted on page monitors as of August 2018 found that close to 90 percent of respondents were aware of the PE system. Those monitors had various views of the PE system. One man in his 40s from Hokkaido wrote, “After learning that my voice had reached the newsroom and the PE, I came to better actually feel that Asahi was a media organization that is ‘thinking together and creating together’ with its readers.” A man in his 50s living in Saitama Prefecture wrote, “Having newspapers strongly protect freedom of the press and report the truth and background to readers is the lifeline of democracy. However there is also the danger of moving in a slanted direction, even if it is unintentional. The PE system is very effective for redirecting that course when the need arises.”

After designing the PE system and serving as the first internal PE, Nakamura returned to the newsroom and now serves as the General Manager, responsible for the contents in print and digital form.

Looking back on the past three-and-a-half years, Nakamura said, “At first, we were creating the system as we went along and faced opposition from the newsroom, but now it has come to be recognized to a certain extent. Some of the results that have emerged include follow-up articles in response to the PE’s opinion, and the revision of the Gender Guidebook. For better or worse, deputy editors in various news sections have become more conscious of the PE and it has also led to the writing of articles while being aware of the reader’s perspective.”
     He also added, “There is no definitive answer that says ‘This is what the PE system should be like.’ With gradual changes in the environment of both sides since the system began, a process of trial-and-error continues even today.”

When asked if the PE system would remain , Nakamura said, “The ideal situation would be when we could proudly proclaim ‘PE is no longer needed as we have firmly taken on a stance of listening to diverse views’. However, when the danger past and God forgotten, all the gains we made would be lost. Since these systems tend to become eviscerated as time passes, we need to keep the will to constantly check and evolve the PE system.”

The history of public editors in Japan has only just begun.


[i] Established in 1922. In the notice that appeared in the paper, Asahi explained that if an inquiry was received of an article, it would be examined and if an error was found it would be corrected and a report will be printed in the paper. The department was said to be the first of its kind in Japan. The current Page Examiner’s Office involves company employees who evaluate articles and headlines that appear in the printed and digital versions after a comparison with other newspapers. That appraisal is compiled into a daily report on weekdays and sent by e-mail to the newsroom.

[ii] Established in autumn 1989. Meetings are held four times a year. Members from outside the paper express their views to executives about the articles. In 2016, the council was transformed to the Asu eno hodo shingikai.

[iii] The page monitor system started in spring 2006. Readers who respond to calls to become a monitor submit on a weekly basis their views on articles that appear in the newspaper and the digital version. About 300 page monitors serve six-month terms.

[iv] Meetings are held about three times a month. During the three-and-a-half years until the end of August, more than 120 meetings have been held. A summary of the discussions can be read by all 2,000 newsroom members.

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