Public Editor

July 18, 2013

Agreement not necessary

I’m here to share readers’ feedback with the newsroom. But do I always agree with the messages I convey?

I reader took me to task pretty strongly this morning. She expressed her displeasure that I didn’t comment on the journalistic ethics question her comment had posed. Shouldn’t that be part of what I do? What exactly is my role at The Star?

This company created the post of readers’ representative back in 1982. It has always been structured as an internal organ of the newsroom, and the first person to occupy this seat was Donald “Casey” Jones. During his long career at The Star he held several jobs, including such important titles as national editor and assistant managing editor.

At some papers, such as The New York Times, the ombudsman/public editor/readers’ representative is structured as an independent, outside job. In some of these places, the ombudsman has to request interviews with newsroom staffers in fact. In my opinion, there’s nothing inherently wrong with either approach to the job.

Here I report only to the editor/vice president, and during my nine-plus years in the job the two people who have held that position have given me only three notes from the editor on something I’ve written. Twice it was to tell me to make a criticism stronger. The other was to point out a logical fallacy that I had missed in a reader’s point.

I have published reader criticisms that have dismayed or angered journalists in the newsroom, particularly when I haven’t included their defenses for a decision. I don’t think that’s required in most cases unless a reader is leveling a charge of unethical behavior. It’s always been my attitude that The Star’s staff has 365 days a year to give its side of things, and it’s my job to give public voice to the best critiques I hear about it. And while I do definitely hear praise, I think it’s more important to air the dings.

Back to the reader who didn’t think I was doing my job well this morning: She basically said it wasn’t enough for me to pass along her thoughts, but that I should also comment on the journalistic standard she was addressing. In this case, I disagree with her point quite strongly. She said that guest columns in the “Business Forum” pages of the Business section should be available only to academics or people who work for think tanks, not those who work for companies that make income from the industries and topics they’re opining on.

This is an excellent example of something I do every single day: sharing with the newsroom a reader’s comment that I disagree with very strongly. A business section with no voices from people who conduct private commerce would be a very poor representation of its subject matter. Journalists are supposed to present multiple sides of all topics. The regular “As I See It” guest column in the Opinion section strongly prefers writers with professional experience in the fields they’re writing about.

I normally would not even bring something up publicly when I think it’s so wrongheaded about a journalistic fundamental. But this one is a good illustration of my role. I have two audiences, but the public one is the more important one. I use this outside platform to give voice to the good stuff I hear. I don’t think it’s usually a wise use of the space to bring up a reader’s point and then explain why I disagree with it.

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