Yes, the credibility of newspapers is under fire. But to restore reader trust, several dailies are trying some fresh ideas and returning to some old ones
Sharon Burnside tilts her head upward and squints, as if the story she is about to tell is written not in her own memory but on her office ceiling. It happened in February 2005, a few weeks before she was set to start her new job as public editor of The Toronto Star. At a conference in Vancouver, Burnside found herself lunching beside Renaud Gilbert, ombudsman for CBC French-language services. Knowing Gilbert was a veteran in the role and an established voice of accountability, she decided to ask him for advice. According to Burnside, Gilbert gazed out the window for several seconds before uttering a phrase straight out of The X-Files: “Trust no one.”
Especially not, Gilbert might have added, fellow journalists. Certainly, most Canadians have their doubts. Leger Marketing studies in both 2005 and 2006 indicated that only forty-nine per cent of Canadians believe journalists are trustworthy. The 2004 Report Card on Canadian News Media, conducted by the Canadian Media Research Consortium (CMRC), found that almost one in three Canadians felt the news they were getting was often inaccurate. And fifty-four per cent of those surveyed believed news outlets regularly tried to cover up mistakes.
The recent spate of high-profile journalistic lies and misdemeanours presumably contributes to this cynical view. The Boston Globe severed ties with Halifax-based freelancer Barbara Stewart after she wrote a story in April 2005 about a Canadian seal hunt that had not yet taken place. In the same month, the Detroit Free Press suspended sports columnist Mitch Albom after he filed a story describing two former players’ attendance at an NCAA basketball game that had yet to be played at the time of his writing, and to which the two stars didn’t show up. (Albom apologized and was later reinstated.) More egregious was the scandal involving USA Today’s Jack Kelley, who, when a 1999 story about ethnic cleansing in a Kosovar village could not be verified, created a witness to corroborate his reports. An investigation into Kelley’s work found a pattern of deception dating back to 1991. Throw in the infamous Jayson Blair scandal of 2003 at The New York Times, and it’s little wonder that a survey released by the Pew Research Center last June showed that only fifty-four per cent of Americans found daily newspapers to be believable. That’s down from eighty-four per cent in 1985.
Canadian journalists don’t have an unblemished track record. The National Post hired sports columnist Scott Taylor after he resigned from The Winnipeg Free Press amid allegations, with which he disagreed, he plagiarized a USA Today article. The paper hired him despite the fact that it had already axed columnist Elizabeth Nickson for failing to attribute quotes and medical reporter Brad Evenson for fabricating them. Prithi Yelaja still writes for the Star, even though then-ombudsman Don Sellar reported that nearly a third of an April 2004 story she filed about a U.S. army deserter was rooted in a Village Voice article.
It’s worth pondering how much those in charge of Canadian news media care about credibility. Thirty-six per cent of respondents to the CMRC survey said news organizations ignored public complaints – which, at least, is lower than the fifty-eight per cent of Americans who said U.S. media turn a blind eye to public protests. But papers in both countries generally have taken steps to minimize mistakes and own up to them when they happen. Some have appointed reader advocates, implemented fact-checking regimes or even enlisted technology to target errant reporters and force them to change their ways. But no matter how hard editors and reporters work to keep their reputations intact, their efforts will be in vain unless readers buy in. The Hamilton Spectator’s managing editor Roger Gillespie chuckles as he recalls an industry meeting he attended in November 2004. At an Associated Press Managing Editors conference, several “embedded readers” were placed in the room. “One of the readers,” says Gillespie, “was a police officer who stood up and said, ‘If I made as many mistakes as you guys do every day, I’d be out of a job.'”
By 2003, reporter Jayson Blair of the Times was posted to the high profile beat of reporting on the war in Iraq from the perspective of military families on the home front. He was given the assignment in spite of the fact that, internally, he had earned a reputation as one of the paper’s most error-prone metro reporters. His faulty work had yielded almost fifty published corrections over four years, and now Blair found himself in the national spotlight. Under the glare, he fell from grace. The paper’s subsequent investigation showed plagiarism or fabrications in a staggering thirty-six separate stories over seven months. Blair lost his job, and the Times found one – rebuilding its reputation.
Among new executive editor Bill Keller’s first big changes was the appointment of Daniel Okrent as the first public editor in the Times’s 152-year history. Assistant managing editor Allan Siegal told PBS Online NewsHour: “The New York Times had a firmly entrenched, almost bitter opposition to the appointment of an ombudsman, and we turned around on that.” Okrent’s eighteen-month contract would see him writing twice monthly columns that criticized the Times on such matters as its delayed apology for Judith Miller’s erroneous reporting about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, its reliance on anonymous sources and its use of “rowback” – articles that attempt to correct previous stories without explicitly acknowledging that errors were made. Okrent’s appointment highlighted a growing trend in the past decade, which has seen more U.S. dailies, like the Los Angeles Times, adding editorial representatives to deal with credibility concerns.
Gina Lubrano, executive secretary of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), says the number of American news outlets with such representatives has increased from roughly thirty to forty since she joined the ONO in 1992. Canada, on the other hand, is trending in the other direction. In 1989, there were six ombudsmen at Canadian newspapers, whereas now Burnside is currently the only Canadian newspaper ombudsman who is a member of the ONO (although the Toronto Sun has a reader representative). In broadcast news, CTV and Global leave corrections in the hands of their news directors. Only CBC – with Gilbert and his English-language counterpart, Vince Carlin – employs ombudsmen.
“We had one up until about fifteen years ago,” says Raymond Brassard, managing editor of The Gazette in Montreal. “There were staffing cuts, and that was one of the positions to go.” Currently, department editors address all corrections, and Brassard insists that department heads talk with reporters who have made the mistakes. He also requires that these reporters submit a written explanation of why the error occurred to both him and the department head. “It’s easier to ignore things by sending them off to the ombudsman,” he says. “This way, more people are involved.” Editorial executives across the country echo this view. The ombudsman’s role ran “out of gas,” says Allan Mayer, editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Journal. “We worry about credibility every day,” says Winnipeg Free Press editor Bob Cox, “but we’re not going to appoint one person to fix it. It has to be a part of the newspaper’s culture.”
Still, the ombudsman’s role goes beyond fielding complaints and correcting errors. “We’re not saviours by any means,” says Burnside’s predecessor at the Star, Don Sellar. “But we can create a dialogue within the paper about ethical issues.” Since Burnside took over the job, she has, like Byron Calame, Okrent’s less entertaining successor at the Times, written columns exploring the use of controversial photographs, fairness in reporting and the intricacies of her own job. Last Boxing Day, Burnside used her column space for a feature entitled “You Be the Editor,” outlining ten of the Star’s ethical dilemmas from 2005 and asking readers how they would have responded. More than 1,200 people took Burnside up on her offer.
Simply having an ombudsman, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that a newspaper is trustworthy. As Star reporter San Grewal points out, ombudsmen are limited in terms of their effect on a publication’s overall credibility. “The whole idea is to make sure things never get into the paper that are inaccurate,” he says. “What an ombud is doing is addressing things after the fact.” Some journalists also have doubts about the loyalties of ombudsmen, pointing out that those who have a prior history with a publication may water down their criticism. Dan Turner, whose October 2005 report on behalf of the Public Policy Forum examined the current state of Canadian journalism, questions whether ombudsmen are fully free to take the gloves off. “Newspapers have tended to appoint people from managerial positions who don’t have much juice left,” he says, adding that he sees little point in having an ombudsman “if you’re not going to be fierce with it.”
Indeed, if readers are looking for public editor Burnside to demonstrate critical ferocity, they’ll be disappointed. When freelancer Carol Watts plagiarized a large portion of an article appearing in Starship, the paper’s children’s page, last September, Burnside wrote a column acknowledging that the plagiarism had taken place and that it was unacceptable. But she gave Watts a chance to apologize. “I’m just asking myself, ‘What were you thinking?'” Watts was quoted as saying. “It’s heartbreaking after sixteen years.” The column makes no mention of disciplinary action against Watts, leaving the impression that a broken heart trumps broken rules. Alison Downie, readership editor at the Sun, has, like Burnside, brought a diplomatic sensibility to her job since editor-in-chief Jim Jennings created the position in June 2005. Jennings says newspapers have lost touch with readers and a representative like Downie can help to rebuild the relationship. “One of the problems is that when you call a newspaper, it’s hard to get an editor on the line,” says Downie. “This way, there’s one person who can deal with that.”
Downie and Jennings both shy away from describing her role as the equivalent of an ombudsman’s. They point to the breadth of her responsibilities, which include fielding reader complaints about circulation and even the paper’s crossword puzzle. Her columns range from debates about the paper’s political coverage to a “dos and don’ts” lesson on how readers can improve the chances of seeing their letters published. She does have the odd bulldog moment. In a January 29 column addressed the Sun’s election-day package under the front page headline “218 Reasons Not to Vote Liberal,” Downie wrote: “I believe the feature should have been more clearly identified as an opinion piece because it was running up front as part of the election news package. It really belonged in the Comment section. A month ago.” Downie has even shown a willingness to get her hands dirty, having once investigated a reader’s accusation that the Sun’s photo editors were using Photoshop software to place women’s private parts in Sunshine Girls’ armpits. “I had to take it seriously because the guy was serious,” she says. While she’s been given complete freedom to critique her own paper, Downie’s previous role as city editor means that her instincts often conflict. “My gut reaction,” she says, “is to defend the newsroom.”
The near-extinction of ombudsmen leaves some papers looking for fresh ways to shore up reader trust. At the Spectator, one method is to use technology to strong-arm reporters into greater accountability. In 2003, managing editor Gillespie formed a newsroom committee to examine the paper’s approach to accuracy. The group found that 985 corrections had been printed over the previous five years, but came up with no explanations for how the mistakes had happened, or might have been prevented. Today, any reporter there who makes three errors in a thirty-day period cannot file a story without attesting that all facts have been checked. Senior reporter Bill Dunphy, who was directly affected by the new system after misspelling some names, remains a strong supporter of the policy. Contrary to the fears of some colleagues, he says, the form has not been used by management to punish its employees – although he wouldn’t have a problem with that. “Accuracy should be part of a reporter’s evaluation,” Dunphy says. Gillespie says published corrections have fallen twenty-five per cent since the system was introduced almost two years ago.
Several U.S. papers have taken up an old standby for policing accuracy: fact-checking. At a few papers, such as the Detroit Free Press and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the facts in a random sampling of stories are checked by editors after publication. The Sun follows the Star-Telegram’s approach: phoning or sending questionnaires to sources after publication, asking them if their quotes and the story as a whole are accurate. Jennings hopes the system will be fully operational this spring, with three stories a week being randomly checked. He also says that a phone call following a spring 2005 series on animal abuse produced a whole new angle of investigation. “A guy brought in briefcases full of court documents that indicate what official sources told us was incomplete,” he says. “This person came to us because he knew someone else that we had contacted for the story.” To Jennings, this was enough validation for his new practice. “People know that you care about getting the whole story and getting it right.”
As for Canada’s two national papers, the situation is status quo. Jonathan Kay, managing editor of comment at the Post, writes in an email that his paper’s Letters to the Editor page is sufficient to ensure a transparent dialogue with readers. The Globe and Mail’s deputy editor, Sylvia Stead, says the paper is currently reviewing its corrections policy and that a recent development is the placement of each correction in the section in which the original story ran rather than collecting them on A2. Credibility, she adds, depends more on day-to-day performance than special mechanisms. “Our incidence of plagiarism hasn’t been high,” says managing editor of news Colin MacKenzie, “and positions like the public editor at the Times tend to come about in times of crisis. We’ve examined this issue and it left us feeling pretty good about where we stand, post-Jayson Blair.”
The Vancouver Sun managing editor Kirk LaPointe recalls an experiment from his days as editor of the Spectator near the turn of the millennium. The paper’s editors tried to count the number of decisions they needed to make each day. “We lost track at half a million,” he says. Journalism is an inexact science, errors are the price of its practice, and, LaPointe says, things are no worse today than they’ve ever been. It’s not the number of journalistic gaffes that are killing credibility, he says, but rather the increased scrutiny being heaped on news media. “Mistakes are magnified,” he says.
Journalists make a living by putting society under the magnifying glass, and now it’s our turn to feel the heat and glare of scrutiny. How newspapers react to this inspection may help determine the future of a profession that uses trustworthiness as its primary currency. Efforts to win back reader confidence need to be guided by humility. “The public is smart enough to know that no organization is infallible,” LaPointe says. “You look worse by pretending that you are.”