August 2, 2017

When The New York Times nixed its public editor position earlier this summer, the move was met with a mix of derision and approval.

Despite criticism from journalists — especially on Twitter — Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger stood by the move, saying in an internal memo that substituting an online reader center for an official ombudsman was justified by the increase of reader interactions on social media.

“… Today, our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be,” Sulzberger wrote in the memo, which The Times emailed to Poynter. “Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

The New York Times isn’t the only major U.S. news organization to get rid of its public editor in recent years. With trust in the media sinking ever lower, several other outlets have pruned or decided not to hire a reader representative.

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In 2013, Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron eliminated the newspaper’s public editor position, having previously said that plenty of people outside of The Post’s newsroom criticize its journalism. BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith has taken a similar stance, saying “we don’t actually have to pay people to criticize us”  — a position he reaffirmed in an email to Poynter. Columbia Journalism Review reports that most local news organizations cut the public editor position during industry-wide downsizing.

But abroad, it’s a different story — public editors and ombudsmen are more important than ever.

“What’s happened in other countries … is that they are expanding the role of the ombudsman and not allowing mid-career journalists inside the organization to step into the role for couple of years, deal with the audience’s concerns and then go back into the reporting or editing stream,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s first ombudsman and a current director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.

“These organizations, especially in Latin America, see the role of the public editor as an agency of democracy.”

In the past several years, the role of ombudsmen has gotten more important in newsrooms outside the U.S. — particularly in countries that are slowly democratizing, editors and media experts say. Tarmu Tammerk, the ombudsman at Estonian Public Broadcasting, told Poynter in an email that he’s seen positions like the public editor spring up in several different countries in order to forge transparency and trust with readers.

“In some parts of the world, the institution of ombudsmen is valued and developing … a number of public media companies in Europe and elsewhere have created the post of standards editors, who are internal watchdogs,” he said. “In Latin America, most countries have what are called defenders of the audiences, which have some functions of ombudsmen, too … the concept is gaining popularity because of democratization.”

According to a study conducted by the University of Buenos Aires, there were at least 30 ombudsmen working at Latin American media organizations at the beginning of 2010. More recent numbers are hard to come by —  an issue Dvorkin said needs more academic study. But the data shows recent attempts to create a structured network of ombudsmen for better sharing experiences and insights.

And it’s not just media outlets in Latin America that are aiming to expand the role and influence of public editors. Tammerk, who’s also a board member and past president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors, said he’s consulted with several media outlets in Eastern European countries — many of which are struggling to create democratic institutions after decades of communist rule — about creating ombudsman positions. Ombudsmen in Germany are trying to set up a network similar to the one underway in Latin America before the end of the year, he said.

It seems U.S. media organizations are largely alone in choosing to forego ombudsmen.

“I think that the problem in North America is that there is, as we’re seeing in every regard, an over-reliance on financial and economic arguments to justify whatever the news organization is doing,” Dvorkin said. “As media organizations look to trim costs, they look at who in their organization is costing them the most … the decline of the ombudsman, to me, is more of an economic issue than anything else. And I think it’s a mistake.”

Along with Jim Brady at ESPN, Elizabeth Jensen is one of the last remaining public editors at a major U.S. news organization. Jensen said her job is essential for holding her newsroom accountable to both its audience and staff — something that cannot be accomplished through social media alone.

“An ombudsman can sort of make a concerted effort at correcting issues that they feel have gone on too long,” she said. “That’s one really valuable role of an ombudsman — this is something I see as a problem, and we’re going to keep talking about it. And that’s not really the role of Twitter.”

Esther Enkin, the president of the Organization of News Ombudsman, agreed.

“To think that 140 characters is any way to have a really meaningful discussion around journalistic values is really not the case,” she said. “Having a public editor or ombudsman is a public declaration that a news organization takes its accountability seriously.”

That’s one reason that some countries have begun instituting public editor and ombudsman positions, Enkin said. In states where media organizations are trying to bolster the power of a free press, maintaining transparency and accountability with readers is a key way to achieve those goals.

“With freedom of expression comes responsibility and accountability, and I guess that’s some of the impetus in countries that are experiencing a renaissance of freedom of expression,” she said. “Some of the impetus has been that the ethical standards of journalism have generally been pretty low and this is a way of absolutely raising the standards.”

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Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab…
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