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March 17, 2016, 12:32 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Mike Ananny: It’s time to reimagine the role of a public editor, starting at The New York Times

“To hold future journalism accountable (not simply to describe its dynamics to interested readers), public editors must speak a new language of platform ethics that is part professional journalism, part technology design, all public values.”

Editor’s note: In late February, the public editor of The New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, announced that she would soon be leaving to become the media columnist at The Washington Post. The following is an open letter to the leadership of The New York Times from Mike Ananny, assistant professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, asking them to radically reconsider the role of the Public Editor.

Dear New York Times,

Margaret Sullivan’s departure is a moment to pause and ponder what the New York Times’s next public editor could and should be in an age of social media — to reimagine the role of the public editor in a way that the Times can and Facebook never will.

Though they first appeared in the U.S. in 1967 (at Louisville’s Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times), Tokyo’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper hired an ombudsman (they’ve mostly been men) in 1922 to “receive and investigate reader complaints.” Also called “readers’ representatives,” “readers’ advocates,” and “public editors,” they are typically senior editors “equipped with the authority to investigate complaints and get answers for readers.” They are neither omniscient ex-journalists preaching ethics in the newsroom, nor are they public relations spokespeople defending the paper from reader criticisms. Rather, they are “privileged readers”: experienced outsiders who combine access and wisdom to thoughtfully critique their paper, help readers trust it, hold journalists accountable to the professionalism they know first-hand, and explain to readers how and why journalism works as it does.

Research shows, though, how hard it is to live up to this ideal. Journalists who work at papers with public editors frequently fail to share reader complaints with public editors; reporters tend to outsource ethical dilemmas to the public editor, expecting him or her to take responsibility for making changes; and approximately 85 percent of ombudsmen columns tend to use public relations language when responding to complaints, trying to convince readers that the paper acted ethically and no further debate is needed.

The public editor is meant to mediate between newsrooms and audiences, but where exactly are newsrooms and audiences today? The pace and scope of press changes are dizzying. Although news websites are still popular online destinations, people increasingly get their news through Facebook and Twitter, with millennials getting political news more from Facebook than anywhere else. Nearly two-thirds of Twitter users and almost 80 percent of Reddit users get news through these platforms. People care deeply about local news, but Twitter does a poor job of surfacing it. News about the Ferguson riots appeared on Twitter, but struggled for visibility on Facebook. And news organizations are now hosting their stories on Facebook servers in a race to make their stories load faster and be shared more. They closely monitor online traffic, use the headline that earns more clicks, encourage journalists to follow story statistics, and wonder how to responsibly cover breaking news already circulating on social media.

The press no longer lives only in newsrooms; audiences are harder than ever to pin down; and both are increasingly meeting through companies and technologies with short histories and unclear investments in professional journalism. If public editors work “independently, outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper” (as the Times’ public editor job description states), where in this networked mix of journalism and social media should they be? What exactly are they expert in, independent from, and outside of? Which boundaries are they patrolling, and on whose behalf?

To get a sense of where the Times’ public editors have been on these questions, I looked for mentions of “social media,” “social networking,” “algorithm,” “Facebook,” or “Twitter” in the columns of the last five public editors, those who have held the post from 2003 through today. I found 38 columns, all written by the three most recent public editors: Clark Hoyt, Arthur Brisbane, and Sullivan.

Only two mentioned algorithms, with Brisbane noting the Times’ use of them to “take a first pass at some categories of comments and quickly cull offending matter,” and Sullivan wondering “How important is data to reporting? And does it get readers closer to the truth or obscure it?” Hoyt worried about journalists’ ability to inject quality content into fast-paced social media conversations and reporters too easily relying on Facebook to find sources.

Several of Brisbane’s early columns were concerned with how easily online news spreads compared to print; journalists’ use of social media to develop personal brands; and the slow pace with which the Times was developing visible editorial policies on social media.

Sullivan had similar questions: Where does the journalistic ideal of “objectivity” go in a world awash in social media; how can online journalists produce news accurately, quickly, transparently, and ethically; when do revenue-generating experiments and advertising formats push ethical limits; and what happens to the “lyrical approach” to copyediting in an age when headlines must be optimized for an ever-increasing number of news platforms?

For Hoyt, Brisbane, and Sullivan, the lines between the newsroom and the public were shifting quickly and hard to police — but they were still visible.

Today, it is harder to say where newsrooms stop and audiences begin. Public editors still need to look after the public interest, hold powerful forces accountable, and explain to audiences how and why journalism works as it does — but to do so they need to speak and shape a new language of news platform ethics.

Several scenarios may help to illustrate how the Times’ power to research, tell, and share stories is now subject to forces outside its control — but not beyond its influence.

What happens when a story housed on Facebook servers meets New York Times editorial guidelines but conflicts with Facebook’s Community Standards? Will the public editor have access to Facebook’s software engineers and News Feed algorithms, as she does to Times journalists and editorial decisions?

When an explosion hit East Harlem, Times journalists had at their disposal an experimental tool called CityBeat: software that automatically gathers social media data geotagged from a location and asks Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to decide whether the data represent a “newsworthy event.” As such systems become more common, will the public editor have access to the crowd workers enlisted as temporary editors and be able to explain their reasoning? Will she be able to suggest tweaks to editorial algorithms that detect stories in some areas but not others, translating ideals of news-coverage diversity into computer code?

As The New York Times continues to experiment with virtual reality projects that embed readers in first-person points of view, how will the public editor hold reporters, engineers, and audiences accountable to the obligations of this new kind of witnessing? Media scholar Roger Silverstone says the best kind of witnessing comes from “proper distance” — when viewers are close enough to scenes to empathize with them, but far enough away to appreciate the power they have to influence them. Will the next public editor show Times journalists, virtual reality technologists, and embedded audiences the power of being both immersed and removed?

These scenarios — clashing guidelines, editorial algorithms, ethical witnessing — may seem far-fetched, but they represent a fast-approaching future. To hold future journalism accountable (not simply to describe its dynamics to interested readers), public editors must speak a new language of platform ethics that is part professional journalism, part technology design, all public values. This means a public editor who can hold accountable a new mix of online journalists, social media companies, algorithm engineers, and fragmented audiences — who can explain to readers what this mix is and why it matters. This public editor should be well versed in the tensions and tradeoffs of enterprise journalism, but she should also be an expert in the boundaries of journalism, the politics of platforms, the ethics of algorithms, and the emerging “liminal press” that sits somewhere between traditional journalism and software design.

The New York Times could use its status as an icon of journalism to reinvent the role of the public editor. It could show other news organizations and social media organizations alike what networked news accountability can look like, and how it might be institutionalized and made into a public conversation.

By combining wisdom, access, and courage in a way the era demands, the Times might help to protect the future press and public interest in a way that Facebook cannot, or will not.

Mike Ananny is an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Photo of The New York Times building by JasonParis used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 17, 2016, 12:32 p.m.
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