Why Publications Need to Keep the Public Editor Role Alive in the Fake News Era

The NYT, WaPo and ESPN have cut their ombudsman

Gone are many of those journalists who investigate newsroom issues to hold editors accountable. Getty Images
Headshot of Sara Jerde

A handful of publications recently eliminated their public editor positions in favor of social media, appointing “reader representatives” and sharing more details about how stories were reported as ways to keep their newsrooms in check. But those avenues, media experts said, don’t replace having an internal, trained, professional journalist investigating issues that arise in newsrooms to hold editors accountable.

Publications including The Washington Post in 2013, The New York Times last year and, most recently ESPN in May, eliminated their public editor positions. The role had “outlived its usefulness,” ESPN explained, while The New York Times said no one person could handle all the responsibilities of the position. (Each publication referred back to its original statement in response to requests for comment.) In those original announcements, executives from each publication also cited the internet as an outlet for their newsrooms to be criticized.

“It’s not so much a matter of finding a conduit for readers to reach out to editors and reporters. If anything, there’s such a flood of stuff that journalists get these days from readers,” said Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor, adding that public editors use strong journalistic skills to explain to readers how and why newsroom decisions are made.

WaPo went ahead and appointed a “reader representative” to field reader inquiries, and placed a former editorial page editor, Alison Coglianese, in the position in 2014.

Recently, a WaPo reporter was let go after it was revealed she often duplicated passages in aggregated stories. A public editor could have addressed this incident and evaluated the Post’s aggregation practices. But without one, WaPo’s media reporter filed a story on the dismissal, and a WaPo spokeswoman declined to comment further on the incident.

The NYT was recently criticized for its coverage of its own reporter, Ali Watkins, whose former relationship with a security aide has been called into question. The publication’s story, published in late June, was criticized for giving a detailed description of her sex life.

The NYT created a “Reader Center,” which requests readers to write in. It also shares more details about how stories are reported. Some publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, also have a standards editor who is constantly monitoring reporters’ ethics.

"It’s indicative of what’s going on in the world of journalism now. There’s nobody guarding the door."
Steven Miller, director of undergraduate studies in journalism and media studies, Rutgers University

Still, none of this replaces having a “thoughtful and passionate, unbiased investigator” looking into newsrooms’ sticky topics with access to top editors, Grueskin said.

Though content quality and trustworthiness is important for WiT Media and its clients, a public editor has not proven to be a “major factor” in maintaining either, “given the tense new political norm, along with the immediacy and pace of social media, and the need to maintain a free press or journalist integrity,” said Clint White, president and founder, WiT Media.

An influx of publications seemed to hire public editors after plagiarism scandals cast a shadow over the industry in the early 2000s, experts said. But they agreed that finances have, at least in part, led publishers to eliminate the role in recent years.

“It’s indicative of what’s going on in the world of journalism now. There’s nobody guarding the door,” said Steven Miller, director of undergraduate studies in journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.

Now, in this era of “fake news” and with a free press that is openly dismissed and criticized by the president, NPR and PBS are two of the few remaining major news organizations to have a public editor.

“I understand why it’s happening for sure, but there also couldn’t be a worse time for this to be happening across the country,” said Tim Franklin, former president of The Poynter Institute and senior associate dean at the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing at Northwestern University.

Paula Kerger, PBS president and CEO, was adamant that it would keep its public editor, which it has had in place for years.

“Even if this weren’t happening now, we would still have a public editor,” Kerger said. “We’re an organization that exists solely because of the trust and integrity that we’ve built up over the years and if we violate that, we’re done.”

At NPR, the ombudsman receives thousands of listeners’ inquires a year and plays a “critical role,” the company’s president and CEO Jarl Mohn said.

“In the current media environment, NPR has maintained the trust and loyalty of its audience. We think it is in part because listeners know that their questions and concerns are being addressed by an independent public editor,” Mohn said.

This story first appeared in the July 9, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.