Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times’

There Is a Role for Public Editors

New York Times Headquarters In New York

SOURCE: Flickr Creative Common

On the same day The New York Times announced a round of buyouts, the paper said it’s also eliminating the position of public editor.

The decision to eliminate the role of the public editor at The New York Times is difficult to understand considering the press continues to suffer from a lack of trust and faces nearly daily assaults from the President of the United States.

Elizabeth Spayd will leave the paper on Friday, according to The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, who first reported the news on Wednesday. Spayd is the sixth person to hold the position since it was created in 2003.

The role of the public editor “comes with a mandate to review standards and practices at the paper while serving as a conduit to readers,” according to the Times story about Spayd’s appointment. The position was created after the high-profile plagiarism scandal involving Jayson Blair.

Arthur Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher, explained in a memo to staff that readers on the internet “collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

He added that the paper will increase the number of stories that allow commenting and work to engage readers through a center based on the news desk.

While the paper’s investment in reader engagement initiatives is laudable, the position of public editor is fundamentally different. The public editor operated outside the newsroom’s chain of command. Those who held the position could ruffle proverbial feathers and draw attention to issues without risking their jobs.

The public editor could also make sense of the cacophony created by those vigilant and forceful online watchdogs. The existence of social media and the internet should not have been the downfall of the public editor. Instead, it should be another tool in the editor’s arsenal.

Practically, the public editor was an educated representative of the readers who could walk among the newsroom, talk with editors and ultimately get answers.

Symbolically, the public editor sent a message to people that the paper took their questions seriously and that there was an independent arbiter who heard their concerns. In a time when trust in the press is still low, that message is an invaluable one to communicate.

Sulzberger wrote in his memo that the position of public editor “played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog.”

Rebuilding trust is important, but maintaining trust is just as crucial.

The New York Times is obviously not exempt from the business struggles of modern media, but it is still among the news organizations that set the bar for the best of journalism. If it decides it does not need a public editor, most other news organizations with similar positions will take note.  Hopefully other news organizations see the value of such positions, however.

Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists‘ ethics committee.

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People in Mass Media Should Be Advocates for Truth

The Society added a line to the Code of Ethics in 2014 as a nod to a new media landscape, where some people may look – but not act – like journalists. Instead of specifically calling out journalists, the Society called on “all people in all media” to be responsible stewards of truth.

On his weekly CNN show Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter ended his program with an editorial on people in media allowing Donald Trump’s vague claims that the November presidential election will be “rigged” to go unchallenged.

Stelter largely focuses on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s treatment of Trump during an interview in which the candidate says the election may be rigged. Also, a conversation with Newt Gingrich in which Hannity suggests voter fraud was a problem in the 2012 election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

“Hannity’s not a journalist, but he has a megaphone, and he’s using his megaphone irresponsibly,” says Stelter.

In his criticism, Stelter hit on an area that sometimes stymies media critics. Cable networks facing criticism of Hannity or other partisan hosts typically hide behind a vague notion that certain programs in their lineup should not be held to the same standards as their news programming.

The Society’s Code of Ethics says that’s not a good enough excuse, though. If a person wants to act like a journalist by interviewing presidential candidates or other newsmakers, the person must be held accountable to some standards.

The one standard all people – whether a political reporter for The New York Times or Sean Hannity – can be held accountable to is the truth.

Journalists and other people in mass media need to be advocates for truth. Sometimes that requires people to challenge their sources or subjects. Sometimes that requires people to demand evidence from sources or subjects to support statements. Sometimes that requires people to tell their sources and subjects they’re wrong.

These actions do not mean a person should become an advocate for a certain political party, candidate or other position. The fate of Democracy is above the pay grade of any one journalist or mass media figure. Instead, it rests in the hands of the public, who should base their decisions on the truth.

When people in the mass media don’t advocate for the truth, it falls upon their peers to point out the failure and correct the record – as Stelter did to Hannity.

The truth is the least the public should be able to expect from any person in the mass media.

Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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The price of plagiarism

This post is written by Andrew M. Seaman, who is a member of SPJ’s ethics committee.

The decision by the Knight Foundation to pay Jonah Lehrer, who has admitted fabricating quotes and duplicating material, $20,000 for a speech brought swift ire from many journalists.

I join that disappointed chorus; the Knight Foundation’s choice to use its money in this way is antithetical to its long tradition of advancing the field on so many fronts. But it’s also important to remember that plagiarism and shoddy journalism’s price tag is much higher than $20,000. Thieves and fabricators cost us much more through collateral damage.

Every day, journalists work hard to explain the world. While some of them are bad apples, the vast majority hold true to the Society of Professional Journalists’ first ethical tenet: seek truth and report it.

Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to do that, especially with decreasing support from many news organizations that live by the motto: do more with less.

And while most good journalists are recognized internally by their editors and colleagues for their hard work, only a few – Cronkite, Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein – will become household names with the public.

Still, journalists show up each day to do their work and report on everything from local school board meetings to civil wars.

But just because a report is broadcast, printed or posted doesn’t mean people will watch, listen, read or click. No, journalists need to earn their audience’s trust before they do that.

Much of that trust belongs to the individual news organization, but another sizable portion is owned by the entire profession.

For example, when Gallup conducts its annual poll about the media, it lumps all newspapers, broadcasts and websites together under mass media. There is nothing wrong with that, but it means every journalist is responsible for maintaining that trust.

In September 2012, the number of Americans who distrusted mass media reached 60 percent, according to Gallup. That’s the lowest level of trust in over 15 years of available data. The last time the annual poll showed a majority of Americans trusting the media was 2006.

When people like Jonah Lehrer, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke come along, it’s like bomb. It doesn’t just ruin their careers and reputations; it also hits journalism’s collective trust.

Take Stephen Glass, who was caught fabricating stories at The New Republic, as an example. He was not just found out; his rise and fall was also turned into a movie that starred Hayden Christensen.

Jayson Blair, who was caught fabricating stories at The New York Times, had his deceptions chronicled in a lengthy front-page story. The same goes for Jack Kelley with USA TODAY.

There’s nothing wrong with movies or explaining a plagiarist’s or fabricator’s deceptions, but these examples show how easy it is for the average person to start questioning and distrusting every story from The New York Times, USA TODAY or any other media organization.

Some people may offer excuses for what these people did. Perhaps the stress was too much for them? Maybe they couldn’t find the stories they once did? I don’t know why they did what they did, and frankly I don’t care. There is no excuse for deception.

When a person consciously steals another person’s work or invents their own reality, they do not just ruin their career. They damage the reputation of every journalist doing hard and honest work – from those covering the school board meetings to those in the middle of war zones.

I don’t think it’s possible to put a price on that damage.

So, why am I angry that the Knight Foundation gave Jonah Lehrer $20,000 to speak? It’s because I don’t understand why anyone would give money to someone who has already taken so much.

Additional Information:

“Knight CEO regrets paying plagiarist”

Jonah Lehrer’s speech:

Jonah Lehrer’s latest tweet:



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Media embeds – alive and well

If you think the practice of embedding “experts” into TV news programs is over, think again.

In a story for an upcoming edition of The Nation, Sebastian Jones takes a fresh look at how frequently pundits’ other roles – as paid lobbyists for companies highly invested on those very topics of discussion – go unreported on the air. (I talked to Jones for his story and was briefly quoted.)

Jones’ story follows the Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of David Barstow of The New York Times, who thoroughly detailed a deep-rooted propaganda-like effort by the Pentagon to secretly sway public opinion about the war in Iraq. Here are Barstow’s stories about the program in general and focusing on retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

News programs fail to disclose analysts’ financial connections to the topics of  which they speak, a blatant conflict of interest that rages on because networks enable the masquerade.

SPJ’s Ethics Committee has criticized the lack of disclosure about these conflicts (see statements here and here), but the networks continue to thumb their noses at the public.

-Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

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