For the last year, I’ve been engaged in a project to aggregate signals of quality in news so platforms and advertisers can recognize and give greater promotion and support to good journalism over crap.
I’ve seen that we’re missing a key — the key — signal of quality in journalism. We don’t judge journalism ourselves.
Oh, we give each other lots and lots of awards. But we have no systematized way for the public we serve to question or complain about our work and no way to judge journalistic failure while providing guidance in matters of journalistic quality and ethics.
Facebook is establishing an Oversight Board. Shouldn’t journalism have something similar? Shouldn’t we have a national ombuds organization, especially at a time when the newsroom ombudsperson is all but extinct? The Association of News Ombudsmen lists four — four! — members from consumer news organizations in the U.S. I’m delighted that CJR doubled that number, hiring four independent public editors, but they cover only as many news organizations — The Times, The Post, CNN, and MSNBC; what of the rest?
I would like to see a structure that would enable anyone — citizen, journalist, subject — to file a question or complaint to this organization — call it a board, a jury, a court, a council, a something — that would select cases to consider.
Who would be on that board? I doubt that working journalists would be willing to judge colleagues and competitors, lest they be judged. So I’d start with journalism professors — fully aware that’s a self-serving suggestion (I would not serve, as I’d be a runaway juror) and that we the ivy-covered can be accused of being either revolutionaries or sticks-in-the-mud; it’s a place to start. I would include journalism grandees who’ve retired or branched out to other callings but bring experience, authority, and credibility with journalists. I would add representatives of civil society, assuring diversity of community, background, and perspective. Will these people have biases? Of course, they will; judge their judgment accordingly.
How would cases be taken up? Anyone could file a case. Yes, some will try to game the system: ten thousand complaints against a given outlet; volume is meaningless. The jury must have full freedom and authority to grant certiorari to specific cases. Time would be limited, so they would pick cases based on whether they are particularly important, representative, instructive, or new.
What would jurors produce? I would want to see thoughtful debate and consideration of difficult questions about journalistic quality yielding constructive and useful criticism of present practice. There is no better model than Margaret Sullivan’s tenure as public editor of The New York Times.
Isn’t this the wrong time to do this, just as the president is attacking the press as the enemy of the people? It’s precisely the right time to do this, to show how we uphold standards, are not afraid of legitimate criticism, and learn from our mistakes. There is no better way to begin to build trust than to address our own faults with honesty and openness.
How would this be supported? Such an effort cannot be ad hoc and volunteer. Jurors’ time needs to be respected and compensated. There would need to be at least one administrative person to handle incoming cases and output of judgments. Calling all philanthropists.
Do journalists need to pay attention to the judgments? No. This is not a press council like the ones the UK keeps trying — and failing — to establish. It brings no obligation to news organizations. It is an independent organization itself with a responsibility to debate key issues in our rapidly changing field.
Would it enforce a given set of standards? I don’t think it should. There are as many journalistic codes of conduct and ethics as there are journalists and I think the jurors should feel free to call on any of them — or tread new territory, as demanded by the cases. I’m not sure that legacy standards will always be relevant as new circumstances evolve. It is also important to judge publications in their own context, against their own promises and standards. I have argued that news organizations (and internet platforms) should offer covenants to their users and the public; judge them against that.
Whom does it serve, journalists or the public? I think it must serve the interests of the public journalism serves. But I recognize that very few members of the public would read or necessarily give a damn about its opinions. The audience for the jury’s work would be primarily journalists as well as journalism students and teachers.
Will it convince our haters to love us? Of course not.
Isn’t Twitter the new ombudsperson? When The New York Times eliminated its public editor position, it said that social media would pick up the slack. “But today,” wrote then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger, “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.” That should be the case. But in reality, when The Times is criticized, reporters there tend to unleash a barrage of defensiveness rather than dialog.
Now I don’t want to pick on The Times. I subscribe to and honor it as a critical institution; I disagree with those who react to Times’ missteps with public vows to cancel subscriptions. Indeed, I hope that this jury can act as a pressure-relief valve that leads to dialog over defensiveness and debate instead of our reflexive cancel culture.
Having said that, unfortunately The Times does give us a wealth of recent examples of the kinds of questions this jury could take up and debate. The latest is the paper’s decision to reveal details about the Trump-Ukraine whistleblower, potentially endangering the person, and the justification by editor Dean Baquet. I want to see a debate about the ethics and implications of such a decision and I believe we need a forum where that can happen. That case is why I decided to post this idea now.
This is not easy. It’s not simple. It’s not small. It might be a terrible idea. So make your suggestions, please. In the end, I believe we need to address trust in news not with media literacy that tries to teach the public how to use and trust what they don’t use and trust now; not with the codification of our processes and procedures; not with closing in around the few who love and pay for admission behind our walls; not by hectoring our legitimate critics with defensive whining; not with false balance in an asymmetrical media ecosystem; not with blaming others for our faults. No, I believe we need a means to listen to warranted criticism and gain value from it by grappling with our shortcoming so we can learn and improve. We don’t have that now. How could we build it?
Disclosure: NewsQA, the aggregator of news quality signals I helped start, has been funded in its first phase by Facebook. It is independent and will provide its data for free to all major platforms, ad networks, ad agencies, and advertisers as well as researchers.