Investing in trust

The New York Times needs to consider the need for the role it abolished earlier this year – the Public Editor. (Photo: Jleon/Wikimedia Commons/CC)

“It’s part of the DNA here. 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.”

That was how Kathy English, the public editor for the Toronto Star in Canada, summed up the role of the position, in an interview earlier this year with the Columbia Journalism Review. The conversation came weeks after The New York Times terminated its public editor role in favor of a Reader Center.

The Times established their public editor post in 2003 after a plagiarism scandal surrounding one of its reporters, Jayson Blair. In a piece in the Star shortly thereafter, English said that while the position itself may not resolve all of the questions of public trust, it is crucial that a representative of the reader be 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,” English wrote.

Indeed, my colleague, SPJ Ethics Committee chair Andrew Seaman, wrote earlier this year that the public editor serves an important role that the culture of the internet cannot duplicate, especially within the Times. (For the record, I serve as a member of SPJ’s Ethics and Freedom of Information Committees.)

“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,” Seaman wrote. “In a time when trust in the press is still low, that message is an invaluable one to communicate.”

SPJ’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists and news organizations to be accountable and transparent for their work and for their actions, and to explain those decisions to the public.

Not many news organizations have people in the role of public editor, or ombudsman. Two notable examples are Elizabeth Jensen at NPR and Madhulika Sikka at PBS, and though the culture of the internet and social media has had an impact on how audiences consume journalism and how they respond to it, it does not serve as a reason to scrap the role and concept of public editors altogether.

With the scandals surrounding prominent male journalists and media personalities this past year, as well as continued questions about trust in light of an error at ABC News and rampant criticism from the Trump administration, public editors’ roles as ambassadors for readers are quintessential. They are integral to the foundation of the relationship between audiences and news organizations, and maintaining trust.

The Times was right to create the Public Editor position 14 years ago, and were wrong to remove it 14 years later. In 2018, it is time the Times (and for that matter, other news organizations) consider the need for a Public Editor – and if maintaining trust and being accountable outweighs long-term costs.

I’ll give you a hint. It does.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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