Re-Introducing the Public Editor
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What’s the role of a public editor in 2017? We live in the age of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and live, instantaneous feedback. You can take issue with something and complain about it, publicly, at the swipe of a finger, and see what everyone else is thinking in real time.
Indeed, many news organizations have eliminated the role of public editor, The New York Times this year and The Washington Post in 2013. The Times justified this move by saying that social media and the internet have allowed readers themselves to serve as a “modern watchdog” and they want to empower all of those watchdogs “rather than to channel their voice through a single office.” It’s a persuasive argument on one level.
What’s the role of a public editor at a place like PBS? This is a question I asked myself while discussing taking on this position. I have spent my whole career in daily journalism and understand well the role of a public editor or ombudsman in a newsroom, the plusses and minuses of one person channeling the questions of many.
Well, the first thing to understand is that PBS is not a newsroom. PBS is not a network. PBS doesn’t really produce content. It is a distributor of content. Here’s how PBS describes itself – “PBS is actively involved in encouraging and otherwise fostering the production of quality content. PBS does not itself produce any television Program Content. Instead, Program Content and often other content distributed by PBS, is produced by people who are not employed by PBS. While producers bear responsibility for content production decisions, PBS, on behalf of member stations and ultimately the audience, exercises oversight of the integrity of the content.”
For that reason, I see this particular role at PBS as something a little different from the role of a public editor in a newsroom.
The primary objective is to ensure that the organization lives up to its own standards of ethics and integrity in the programming it distributes. That means that when legitimate issues are raised by the audience I will look into them. There is not one senior editor of PBS to whom one can lodge a query. I will be the person to help navigate this process and find the appropriate person to respond.
Masterpiece is produced by WGBH and distributed through PBS. The PBS NewsHour is produced by a separate company owned by WETA. This is probably an aspect of PBS that is not well understood and I will endeavor to inform the audience about how this structure works.
Large companies, independent producers and everything in between are all part of the diversity of content providers for PBS and in order to be distributed by PBS they must live up to a set of standards and guidelines. It is against those standards and guidelines that they should be measured.
PBS is a distributor of a vast array of content that is not limited to news and information programming. The breadth of programming includes drama, culture, history, food, kids programming, travel, arts and music, science and nature. Thus it is my intention to be engaged in questions and issues that span that breadth of content.
I’ll also be interested in pursuing some questions myself, on topics that I hope will be enlightening and interesting for the audience, and, thus, I hope I can serve as the interlocutor between the public, PBS and producers of PBS content.
I might occasionally deal with broader topics such as examining the media climate we currently live in, how technology is impacting the production and distribution of content, and what competing forces PBS is operating against.
Expect to hear from me about things I think are important or just plain interesting that the audience should know. I’ll also try and understand more deeply the complicated enterprise that is public television in this country and along the way explain what I’ve learned to you, the audience.
While I will be communicating with you on this Public Editor page at PBS.org, and you can connect too via firstname.lastname@example.org, I will also be examining other ways to connect with our audience including, yes, in the social space. This is a convulsive time in our media environment not just for journalism but of all types of content and I’m looking forward to examining how PBS is serving its audience in these times.