News Media Today

Would reinstating public editors bring back trust in media?


It should come as no great surprise that public trust in journalism — and the so-called mainstream media in particular — has never been lower.

A Gallup poll in October found just 7% of respondents said they have “a great deal” of trust and confidence in the media to report “fully, accurately and fairly.” December poll from YouGov found Americans were much more likely to trust election information from “friends and family” over the “news media.” However, it is worth pointing out that people identifying as Republicans are far more likely to mistrust the media than Democrats.

Regardless, it paints a grim picture of the public’s view of journalism. A lot of the misgivings are driven by the increasingly partisan divide of media organizations, exemplified by the war between opinion hosts at Fox News and MSNBC waged nightly on cable TV. But the negative sentiment trickles down to local news organizations, where culture war issues have invaded school board meetings and athletic events.

In the 1980s, many cash-flush news organizations employed a public editor specifically to build and foster trust between readers and journalists. Also known as an ombudsperson, these editors would independently report on readers’ concerns with news coverage, shining a light on journalism's sometimes dimly lit and complex machinery. At their best, the role helped to identify a newsroom’s blind spots and served as a reminder the job exists to serve readers.

But, like cartoonists, movie critics and local columnists, these positions are now considered an expensive luxury at news organizations with fewer resources and other digital challenges to overcome. The New York Times eliminated the position in 2017, while The Washington Post’s last ombudsperson, Patrick Pexton, left the newspaper in 2013.

These days, just two news organizations in the United States — NPR and PBS — still appear to employ a public editor. So, is it time for more news organizations to consider hiring ombudspersons to help rebuild trust in the media — one community at a time?

The Boston Globe Columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr thinks so. In February, Stohr suggested news organizations such as the Times and the Globe bring back the public editor position, in part to combat criticism coverage of the 2024 presidential election between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Stohr convincingly argues that the Times, in particular, doesn’t seem to care enough about the public perception of its election coverage, chalking up much of the criticism to partisans fighting for their side of the political divide.

“Some of our critics have legitimate grievances, and we have to be open to hearing those grievances,” Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger said in a recent interview with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “But not all criticism, and not even all good criticism, is aimed really at correcting the record. Often, it's aimed at intimidating independent reporting. So our job is to help give the staff confidence to do those stories that explore unpopular positions and wade into controversial areas that challenge conventional wisdom.”

Margaret Sullivan, who served as the Times’ public editor for four years, also thinks they should bring the position back, writing on social media that the organization “could *really* use one right now to investigate on behalf of readers.”

So, how would a public editor help?

Take NPR, one of the few news organizations still employing a public editor. For nearly the past four years, they’ve turned to Kelly McBride, a senior vice president at Poynter and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, to provide independent analysis of their news coverage and answer listeners' issues.

“Having an external critic acts as a bridge between the audience and the newsroom, so I can criticize small things before they become big things,” McBride said.

In just one example, McBride recently wrote about ageism in the news and how easy it has been for news organizations to let editorial content about an aging president slip into demeaning or pejorative comments about aging in general. Not only did the piece address direct questions from NPR listeners about the organization’s coverage, finding NPR was doing more stories on Biden’s age than Trump’s, it served as a reminder to reporters and editors to be mindful of their coverage of the issue.

“Raising issues in small ways has this effect; they have a much larger effect and serve as a reminder,” McBride said.

Public editors can also enlighten readers who assume bias when it doesn’t actually exist. For example, take cynical criticism claiming a news organization’s coverage is biased or favors one political side or another. In that case, a public editor can present a more balanced review of the topic — maybe pointing out several stories that present a more complete picture of the coverage that’s hard to see while staring at one headline.

“When there is a cynical criticism, you can point out that cynicism and the validity that might exist buried underneath,” McBride said, while offering a broader, more accurate picture of a news organization’s coverage.

It’s hard to imagine large, corporate newspaper chains owned by hedge funds suddenly turning to public editors to offer more accountability for their journalism. After all, one might answer readers’ questions about newspapers that no longer employ local reporters or why things like city council meetings no longer warrant coverage.

Forget the large chains for a moment. Stohr argued that while the luxury of a public editor is probably still out of reach for many cash-starved news organizations, profitable outlets like the Times or the Globe still need to be convinced that the cost and inconvenience of having an independent journalist shine a flashlight around the newsroom are worth the headaches.

For example, the last ombudsperson employed by The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I work, left the role unfilled in 2003. The Inquirer is one of a few newspapers in the country owned by a nonprofit and might be a candidate for such a role. However, like other news organizations, the Inquirer still has to manage its resources responsibly, covering a metro area that over 6 million people call home.

Well, McBride has an idea for that. She’s developing a public editor center, where a market — let’s say Philadelphia — would have a public editor serving all the major news organizations simultaneously, allowing them to divide the cost.

“My idea is that all the newsrooms would buy in, run the content, and participate in events,” McBride said. It would essentially help news consumers get a better understanding of what's actually going on in their own market.”

While it remains unlikely your news organization will decide to add a public editor anytime soon, McBride offers one useful bit of advice she’s learned while covering news organizations' missteps for many years.

“You really have to risk the urge to be clever. This isn’t about going viral on the internet,” McBride said. “You’re trying to improve standards and news literacy. That is an important job nobody’s paying attention to right now.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at


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