If managers are not willing to take a punch, are public editors and ombuds the internal accountability mechanism the reader needs?

By Jane Gerster

In her first column as the Toronto Star’s public editor, Sharon Burnside wryly noted, “Readers will look after the swelled head.” It was March 2005 and she’d held the post all of seven hours, had already written five corrections and was working on two more. The phone had rung: one caller angry about delivery and two furious about editorial decisions.

Burnside had gone from assistant managing editor for training and development to the newly rechristened ombudsman’s office. The onerous task of carefully crafting corrections, answering for the newsroom’s failings and “translating” between those who report, write, photograph and edit, and those who read was now hers.

“Credibility is hard to win, easy to lose,” Burnside wrote. “It’s won when we’re thorough, nuanced, accurate and fair; lost when we spell a name wrong, paint the greys of the world black and white or overlook a whole story for a half tale.”

The job is credibility and accountability. It’s the through line for all five currently holding the job at media outlets across the country, even though their titles, specifics of their mandates, and details in their organizations’ own standards guides differ.

“It’s really about trust,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, a journalism lecturer at the University of Toronto and a former ombudsman with NPR. “It’s about whether the newsroom trusts the ombudsman to be fair and whether management is prepared to take a punch once in a while for how the organization operated.”

Dvorkin’s not so sure newsrooms these days are willing to take a punch. Others share similar concerns. But if they’re not willing to take a punch, are public editors and ombuds the internal accountability mechanism the reader needs?

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One of CBC’s English ombudsman Esther Enkin’s favourite quotes is by Ed Wasserman, dean of journalism at the University of California. In a blog he wrote public editors “represent a powerful recognition by news organizations that they owe it to the public to hold themselves accountable, that routinely answering for their actions isn’t just optional, but is integral to the practice of journalism.”

Some argue we have the Internet for that—anyone can be a critic. Enkin doesn’t agree.

“It’s the wild west out there,” she said. “I think how you distinguish yourself is by having integrity and openness.”

If anything, says Brunswick News ombudsman Patricia Graham, the new avenues for the public to make their voices heard is “something that requires us to respond.”

Graham is the country’s easternmost ombudsman. For CBC, there is Enkin; for Radio-Canada, there is Guy Gendron; for the Globe and Mail, there is Sylvia Stead; for the Toronto Star, there is Kathy English. Over the last several decades, 15 people have held the position at major media outlets including the five currently employing one, starting with one of English’s predecessors at the Star back in 1972.

Most were axed before the 21st century due to financial constraints, management disinterest or a mix of the two, wrote Carolina Quixadá in her 2010 Master of Journalism thesis at Carleton University on ombudsmanship.

The longest running was John Brown for the Edmonton Journal (15 years). In recasting Brown as a reader response editor in 1993, the Journal’s editor brought Brown back under the umbrella of newsroom management. “The publisher and I concluded that one of the strengths of the ombudsman job is also a great weakness: an ombudsman is independent,” then-editor Murdoch Davis wrote.

Brown “can’t be turned into an apologist for the newsroom,” Davis wrote “On the other hand, he is unable to take action on a complaint or comment. He can’t decide to run a correction. He can’t direct that a story be done. He has no authority over the paper’s staff.”

Here is where Enkin distinguishes between ombudsman and public editors, although both can be members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) and not all see a clear divide. “The public editors, they’re independent, but they are more part of management,” she said, whereas her role is “much more independent, hands-off.”Those who’ve previously held the post or researched it say the public editor’s value is not in exerting some type of authority over staff or management. What makes them “the strongest public representation” is their “public airing” of what management and staff are doing, said Kirk LaPointe, former CBC ombudsman and most recent executive director of ONO.

In other words, the job of a public editor isn’t to clean up a mess so much as it is to say one was made and what is being doing to fix it is, or isn’t, enough.

John Fraser, president and CEO of the National NewsMedia Council said he sees the public editor role more as a way of sparing newspaper’s costly litigation fees and “not really working for the public”. But he also said he believes in the roles’ value.

“As a general statement I would say, yes, they do add accountability and credibility,” said Fraser. “Then you have to look at how individuals do their job.”

It’s a difficult one, putting good people in frequently tough situations.

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On February 5, 2015, a Toronto Star investigation into the HPV vaccine Gardasil went live on their website. “A wonder drug’s dark side,” the paper tweeted. It wasn’t long before the newspaper found itself inundated by critiques from members of the media, medical community, and public. They said the reporting and its packaging misled readers, ignoring the science saying the drug is safe. Five days after publication, Vox’s senior health correspondent Julia Belluz called the story “everything wrong with health reporting in one dangerous package.”

Her attempts to get the Star’s editor-in-chief Michael Cooke on the record were illuminating: “He said… my ‘time might be better spent doing your own Vox-paid-for research into Gardasil-good-and-questionable rather than idly picking into other reporters’ work’ and that I should ‘stop gargling our bathwater and take the energy to run yourself your own, fresh tub.’”

The next day, the Star’s publisher appeared on CBC radio to say he was “deeply troubled by the potential reading of this piece,” that the paper should have responded more quickly and more openly to criticism, and that corrections were in the works.

A few days later, the Star’s public editor wrote to say the reporters’ intentions were valid but ultimately unsuccessful. “I have to wonder why the Star published this at all,” English wrote.

It was, what Dvorkin and John Miller, a former Star editor and professor emeritus at the Ryerson School of Journalism, would probably consider a rare moment in which a Canadian public editor was decisive, not just explanatory.

There is no shortage of columns featuring explanations for mistakes, but Miller said too often Canadian public editors seem almost reluctant to criticize.

“A lot of the columns I’ve seen just don’t reach a conclusion,” he said. “They don’t say the paper was wrong or right, they just say here’s the way things are and here’s why this was done and I think that’s not representing the reader at all.”

Both Miller and Dvorkin point to Stead’s handling of the latest plagiarism allegations leveled against Globe columnist Margaret Wente as one of the more recent missed opportunities for a public editor to be decisive and demand more from management.

But Stead denies the column doesn’t reach a conclusion. “The headline is ‘prose must be attributed’ which is my conclusion,” she said. “I said it was unacceptable.”

“It remains a mystery to me” why Stead didn’t “really go after management” in that case, Dvorkin said, or at the very least write to her readers that she wasn’t allowed to know the details due to union rules or whatever other reason management might give.

“Suggesting that you’re not pushing hard enough, that’s someone’s view and that’s really nothing I can affect,” said Stead. “I look into things; I explain to the readers what’s happened.”

Perhaps, Miller said, the media should reverse the roles and imagine themselves as the public figures who they wave their recorders in front of. “If there was a story about a politician who said something he shouldn’t have and the story was lacking any detail about what the penalty was for it, would we be happy not knowing the consequences?”

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Unsurprisingly, public editors and ombudsmen are unwilling to critique each other’s decisions. It is a job centred on finding an ethical line where there is not always one to be found. Sometimes it’s the reader and sometimes it’s a reporter; the readers might say you’re toeing the management line and the reporters will greet your arrival with, “Oh, my God, now what did I do wrong?”

It’s “an occupational hazard,” Graham joked of reporters’ propensity to greet her arrival with groans and trepidation.

But in a world of social media pile-ons and bleakly low trust in news media, Canada’s small cohort of ombudsmen offer an antidote of sorts to the insatiable, often unforgiving 24-hour news cycle.

“When you’re working in a newsroom you’re in a hurry, you can get to the defensive place pretty easily,” said Graham. “It’s really great to have someone independent who doesn’t right away go to defense and who has time to listen and investigate and consider.”

Sometimes the media outlet is to blame, but sometimes it isn’t.

English has written hundreds of columns (she’s the third-longest serving ombudsman in Canadian media history at nine years counting), but the ones she likes most are the ones “in which you can really see that when you mess up in journalism it can have an impact on real people.”

There’s the teenager the Star wrongly reported as a murder victim. Then there’s the story of the final baby born at Women’s College Hospital that, in fact, covered up the truth: the last baby born there had died.

There is value in correcting the record. “It’s very, very humbling to see those people grappling with what it means to be accountable, responsible, and independent,” Enkin said.

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While the number of public editors is on the decline in the United States, it is rising abroad. That is technically true in Canada as well—the number went from three to five after the Globe and Mail and Brunswick News hired Stead and Graham respectively.

Based on interviews with English, Stead, Graham, and Enkin, a major delineation in their roles is this: English and Stead’s responsibilities extend to handling corrections, while Graham plays only an advisory role. Meanwhile, Enkin and her French language counterpart Gendron “make sure they happen,” but don’t handle corrections; their role is “an appeals authority, in a sense.”

Stead, English, Graham, and Enkin can see both upsides and downsides to whether independence and credibility could be better maintained by restricting ombudsmen to fixed term limits and forcing newspapers to hire from outside their own organization.

Graham has a renewable term, but came out of semi-retirement from across the country to take the job. “I wasn’t beholden to anyone and that’s a positive,” she said, but added that it was a steep learning curve.

English echoes the sentiment. She, too, came from another newsroom, although she worked in the 1980s as a Star reporter. She sees “huge advantages” to how the public editor functions independently and on a term at the New York Times, but also sees advantages to her longer tenure – namely, the ability to address issues after year two or year three that she didn’t feel comfortable handling on day one.

The CBC, which functions differently as a public enterprise, also has terms and rules around integration back into the newsroom if an ombudsman wants to return to reporting. Enkin, who recently took over LaPointe’s role as executive director of ONO and has been involved in international research about public editors, ombudsmen, standards editors and how the roles are done and differ, said that in comparison CBC “is one of the more robust systems.”

Only Stead emerged straight from the newsroom and she said it’s hard to speak decisively on the pros and cons while she’s still actively doing the job. But, she said, the ideas of a term limit or picking a public editor from outside are worth mulling before her successor (not that she’s planning an exit) is named.

Those skeptical of the role’s value have other routes for accountability. The launch of the National NewsMedia Council last fall is good for both, LaPointe said. The Council is worth noting because it includes most English dailies and community news media across the country, excluding Quebec and Alberta (which have their own provincial councils).

That means that even if a paper doesn’t have a public editor, such as the National Post, there is “a public complaint mechanism.”

Its existence also serves as a reminder to public editors to take complaints seriously. “I’m well aware that if a reader isn’t satisfied with my response they can take it on to the (Council),” said English. She said that when she’s formulates her responses, she thinks, “Is this really answering the reader in a way that is sincere and true and in line with our journalistic practices?”

But what Canadian media truly needs more of, agreed Miller and Dvorkin, is more robust criticism all around.

Miller said he only became aware of the newsroom’s culture as “an invisible but very real force on how journalists do their jobs” after he left the Star. “I thought we were doing a wonderful job, a world class job… then I look at it from outside and I say, ‘You know what? It’s not as good as I thought.’”

But even a little distance in Canadian media – which is small and getting smaller – is no guarantee of better criticism, although some sharpening critiques are emerging from places like Canadaland.

“We kind of drink each other’s bathwater,” Dvorkin said. “No one is really willing to go out on a limb and give the kind of rigorous and robust media criticism because you never know if you’re going to need to get a job somewhere.”