For whom the bell tolls

İBRAHIM ALTAY
Published
Illustration by Necmettin Asma
Illustration by Necmettin Asma

With the elimination of the public editor's post in The New York Times, the debate on the role of ombudsmen followed by its adaptation to our current situation is sorely needed especially considering the new realities of conventional and social media

Media ombudsman is a relatively new job description under the umbrella of journalism, apart from a few examples from the late 1900s. It has several names, ranging from public editor to reader's representative, but eventually, they all serve the same purpose: Keeping a watchful eye to identify and examine mistakes, factual errors, plagiarism or similar journalistic failings in their newspapers while acting as a liaison to readers.

One of the most famous creations of this position was back in 2003 following the Jayson Blair scandal. The New York Times established the office of public editor, and since then six people have held the job. It looks like the latest public editor, Elizabeth Spayd, will also be the last, according to a memo issued on May 31 by the newspaper's publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. Before moving forward, let us share an excerpt from the memo to get the ball rolling on the different viewpoints regarding this development:

"There is nothing more important to our mission, or our business, than strengthening our connection with our readers. A relationship that fundamental cannot be outsourced to a single intermediary. The responsibility of the public editor - to serve as the reader's representative - has outgrown that one office. Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves. To that end, we have decided to eliminate the position of the public editor, while introducing several new reader-focused efforts. ..."

Thus far, it appears that the NYT thinks that a public editor is inadequate for responding to the evolving needs of the new era in journalism, thus deciding to replace the role of public editor with other journalistic avenues. We will address what those are a bit later. Before doing so, however, it is important to mention that this measure did not come without its own share of controversy. Among the critics were Spayd's predecessors; namely, Margeret Sullivan, who mentioned that the Washington Post had also eliminated the position of ombudsman back in 2013.

Some also said that it was Splayd's less-than-stellar performance as public editor that contributed to the elimination of the position. Nevertheless, it is safe to say the decision was met with a pretty mixed response. Let's wrap it up with a statement from the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), which represented the other end of the spectrum and criticized the decision:

"There is no doubt that the role of public editor and ombudsman is more critical than ever. To say - as Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. did - that the position has outlived its value in the age of social media, is just plain wrong. Sulzberger said that the responsibility 'to serve as the reader's representative has outgrown that one office.' To the contrary, it is more necessary than ever. The social media space is characterized by heat and little light, angry assertions and not as many facts. It is the very fact that the office is embedded within the news organization that gives it its power, effectiveness, and probably most importantly, its credibility. We are the ones that know where to look, what to ask, to pull back the curtain and give members of the public an understanding of the way a news organization works. We are the ones that can demand responses from news management. News organizations truly committed to accountability make a powerful statement when someone they hire is able to criticize and question editorial decisions. News management is not able to ignore them.

Ed Wasserman, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and an associate member of ONO, said ombudsmen, 'represent a powerful recognition by news organizations that routinely answering for their actions isn't just optional but it is integral to the practice of journalism.' Opening all stories to comments and creating a 'Reader Center' just does not provide the same depth and accountability. The social media space is not an ideal place for thoughtful and in-depth analysis. At a time when there appears to be a crisis in public trust in all news organizations, it is not logical to cut the position that actually can contribute to rebuilding that trust. Social media and the degree of interactivity it brings may mean the way our work is done and how the role is defined may need to change but to end it completely is a disservice to the public we serve."

If you look at the last paragraph, it mentions the "Reader Center," which the Times plans to establish to replace the office of public editor. The excerpt of Sulzberger's memo also explained the platform:

"We are dramatically expanding our commenting platform. Currently, we open only 10 percent of our articles to reader comments. Soon, we will open up most of our articles to reader comments. This expansion, made possible by collaboration with Google, marks a sea of change in our ability to serve our readers, to hear from them, and to respond to them. ... As the newsroom announced yesterday, we have created a Reader Center led by Hanna Ingber, a senior editor, who will work with Phil and many others to make our report ever more transparent and our journalists more responsive. The Reader Center is the central hub from which we engage readers about our journalism, but the work will be shared by all of us. ..."

Winds of change

As we have gathered the rhetoric of two different viewpoints in the debate, it is clear that both sides have their strong points. On one hand, we have the NYT with its drive to adapt to new realities of the conventional media alongside social media. After all, with so many readers just a click away from letting their displeasure be known publicly, is a public editor really necessary?

ONO, on the other hand, says, "yes," not to that question but the statement, while recognizing the necessity of the adaptation of the media's ombudsman position in the end. We are no longer living in the days where a reader can complain via a letter to which the ombudsman serves as intermediary. However, the job is by no means obsolete. "Fake news" is another good point addressed by ONO and considering that populism does not equal truthfulness, a method completely reliant on social media feedback can do more harm than good if it is enacted by completely destroying the role of the public editor.

A person with an immediate understanding of the intricacies of journalism with the ability to inform readers while holding newspapers accountable directly with face-to-face communication or indirectly via articles is a valuable asset. It can be even more so by adopting the feedback from social media, comments and other mediums without solely relying on letters. Of course, many ombudsmen screen these platforms regularly, but building a "Reader Center" with the purpose of making the voice of the readers louder can be instrumental in enjoying the "best of the both worlds," in a sense.

We actually tackled this issue back on Feb. 16, 2015 in our "A watchful eye in the media" article. We stand by those arguments. Decade ago, a single newspaper had a slower news flow with approximately 250 news articles, but now this number is closing in on 1,000. How can we expect a single person to effectively supervise them with the same efficiency? The coverage of media ombudsmen is limited compared to the possible input of the readers as well. After all, unless there is a big factual mistake or material error, opinion pages and columns are not covered by media ombudsmen. However, a system where a reader's opinion and critique are easily made available and visible by paying attention to comment sections and social media, these parts of the newspaper will receive their fair share of criticism with the betterment of the whole as a result. In the abovementioned article, we said:

"We also know that readers are the biggest helpers in this supervision. But, their regard for the media changed as well. In today's media, including old media giants, nobody is special. Newspapers are far from their past authority. This also causes the questioning of the position of ombudsman as a self-regulator. Nowadays, readers prefer to share their complaints of a news article on their social media accounts, only visible to them and their friends, rather than sending them to ombudsmen. Another problem that renders ombudsmen dysfunctional is Turkish newspapers' obsession with daily political arguments and their preference for political correctness instead of objectivity."

Adapting the job of ombudsmen to the realities of the day-to-day requirements, including and inviting more input from readers, can provide a cure for the problem mentioned in the quote above. Keeping a watchful eye on social media is also a necessary responsibility for an ombudsman, as we debate this transition period. Just because there are no complaint letters bursting in like in the old days, it doesn't mean all is well. Social media is filled with them. The trick is to separate political complaints from the others.

Back in February 2015, we said that change is coming fast and "We must have an ontological debate about ombudsmen, but we must embark on this journey without political prejudices, while also avoiding the esotericism of the freedom of speech." It appears such change is here already and is occurring, one-way or another. The important thing to remember is that like many things in life, the best course lies in moderation and synthesis and neither in burying our heads in the sand nor in getting swept up in the pursuit of populism.

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