ESPN this week eliminated the position of public editor, the journalist who serves as an ombudsman and in-house audience representative. The explanation was familiar.
Kevin Merida, senior vice president of the sports-media giant, said in a statement that the role has “outlived its usefulness, largely because of the rise of real-time feedback of all kinds.” He noted that The Washington Post and New York Times also have done away with public editors. “We too have seen how access to the Internet and its social platforms has created a horde of watchdogs who communicate directly with us to share observations and questions,” Merida said.
More and more news outlets are, indeed, crowdsourcing criticism, saying they no longer need a single professional to weigh in on coverage and address the public's questions and concerns. Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsman & Standards Editors, estimated in a 2015 Politico report that only about 20 U.S. news outlets maintained public editors — and that was before cuts by ESPN and the Times.
“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,” Arthur Sulzberger Jr., then the Times's publisher and now its chairman, said of the newspaper's decision last year. “Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”
When The Post discontinued the role of public editor, in 2013, the paper's publisher at the time, Katharine Weymouth, said the position “was created decades ago for a different era.”
One of the news media's few remaining public editors, NPR's Elizabeth Jensen, agrees that times have changed. But she contends that “the noise and confusion of social media, if anything, makes the public editor role even more valuable.”
“You can find anyone saying anything on social media,” Jensen said. “Important issues do sometimes get raised. But the role is also about transparency and accountability and applying news judgment to the critiques. A public editor can hold a newsroom to account in a way that no social media crowd can.”
Jensen noted that a public editor's job is not only about criticism but also about opening a window to how newsrooms work. She said one of her favorite recent columns focused on NPR's handling of President Trump's remark about “shithole” countries.
“The Twitter hordes had decided, without evidence, that NPR was avoiding the actual word out of timidity, which was not the case, as became clear after talking to the news executive,” Jensen recalled.
As public editor, Jensen asked deputy managing editor Terence Samuel to explain why NPR, on the air, had initially referred to an unspecified “vulgar slur.”
One reason, Samuel said, is that “it was not our reporting.” The Post had been first to report Trump's comment.
“It seemed to me that the news in the story was not the word itself,” Samuel added, “but the sentiments expressed.”
“I still disagreed with NPR's initial decision,” Jensen told me, “but the journalism instincts behind that decision were important to hear. I think that builds audience trust, in the long run, and we all know how important that is, in today's media environment.”