Is Now the Best Time to Get Rid of Your Ombudsman?

Journalists and political pundits took to Twitter on May 31 when HuffPost broke the news that The New York Times will no longer have the position of public editor on its payroll.

“The public editor position, created in the aftermath of a grave journalistic scandal, played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog,” Arthur Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher, wrote in a memo obtained by HuffPost. “We welcomed that criticism, even when it stung.

“But 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,” the memo continued. “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 ombudsman is a position seen less and less in modern newsrooms. Politico reported in 2015 that there are “only a handful” of ombudsmen that are still on news organizations’ payrolls.

According to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, “A news ombudsman receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage.”

Each ombudsman has his or her own method, but the position’s ultimate goal is to make sure that the news organization is staying true to its mission. Ombudsman also can have a different name depending on the news organization: public editor, public eye (as CBS calls it) or, as CNN dubbed it, the executive vice president of news standards and practices.

Financial issues are usually cited when eliminating the ombudsman position. Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post’s media reporter and a former Times public editor, attributed it to just that when the Times’ news broke.

Journalists were critical of the Times’ decision to cut the position, especially with trust in media at an all-time low.

This thread from Jeff Guo, media reporter for Vox, summarizes a lot of the criticism seen on Twitter.

According to Gallup, only 32 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media.

That media distrust has been partially inflamed by President Donald Trump, who has expressed his negative feelings for the “mainstream media,” specifically for the Times, on multiple occasions.

“The New York Times has been a frequent focus of the president, receiving about 30 negative mentions on Twitter in 100 days,” the Times reported in April.

Liz Spayd wrote her last column as the public editor for The New York Times on June 2. She expressed concern about what the lack of a public editor means for politics and news organizations.

“I don’t worry that The Times, or The Washington Post or others with the most resources will fail to pursue ripe investigative targets,” she wrote. “And I hope they do. But in their effort to hold Trump accountable, will they play their hands wisely and fairly? Or will they make reckless decisions and draw premature conclusions?

“And who will be watching, on this subject or anything else, if they don’t acquit themselves well? At The Times, it won’t be the public editor.”

Washington Post Media Critic Erik Wemple played devil’s advocate in an article explaining why TV outlets need public editors but the Times does not.

“The sort of institution that had a public editor to begin with is the sort of institution that may well not need one,” wrote Wemple. “An organization that pays someone to analyze the credibility and accuracy of their news coverage is probably more open to admitting mistakes and welcoming criticism.”

Fox News and MSNBC, in general, are both criticized for their political leanings, and neither have an ombudsman. President Trump praises the former for its coverage while attacking the latter, typically in tweet form.

Patrick Pexton, the Washington Post’s last ombudsmen, interviewed Marty Baron, the Post’s executive director, on his decision to get rid of the position.

“There is ample criticism of our performance from outside sources, entirely independent of the newsroom, and we don’t pay their salaries,” said Baron.

News organizations have to navigate how they plan to maintain the trust of the public for democracy’s sake while deciding how to allocate dwindling resources. This balancing act leaves the fate of the ombudsman position up in the air.

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