In this piece

How a revitalised Public Editor role could solve two of journalism’s biggest crises

Kathy English, Toronto Star

Kathy English and Public Editor Associate, Maithily Panchalingam in December, 2016. (Toronto Star file photo, used with permission)

29th March 2021

In this piece

At a time when journalism is facing a crisis of trust and a long-overdue reckoning for racial equality in staffing and coverage, I offer one key recommendation: hire a public editor.

I was the longest-serving public editor of the Toronto Star, the Canadian news organisation with the longest commitment of any news organisation in North America to the role of public editor. I bring an insider’s perspective and personal viewpoint about the potential of this accountability role that has long been considered an “endangered species” in journalism.

When a news organisation commits to an independent public editor, it makes a strong statement about its commitment to trustworthy journalism.

Public editors do the work of overseeing accuracy and fairness and other imperatives of ethical journalism. They can correct your mistakes. They are your public promise of accountability and transparency. They will engage with your news audience and create public understanding of the importance of trustworthy journalism in a world polluted by dangerous disinformation. When appropriate, they will defend your journalists from increasingly hostile invective.

But public editors could – and should – also do more. Here, I call on our “journalistic imagination” to envision a greater role for the public editor in holding journalists to account for diverse, inclusive journalism that is aligned with its moral mission for equality in a liberal democracy.

Just as journalism has failed to reflect the publics it seeks to serve – despite more than 50 years of talking about the need for diversity, inclusion and equality – so too has the role of public editor failed to take hold in global journalism over those same five decades.

Is there a solution that could make the public editor role more relevant, and journalistic diversity a greater reality? Can the role of public editor encompass active responsibility for holding news organisations to public account for diversity, inclusion and equity imperatives in both staffing and content?

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Why not? Public accountability is core to the work of public editors, and diversity and inclusion in journalism demands as much. Someone must do this work if newsrooms are to ever rectify long-standing failures to create diverse newsrooms and coverage that fully reflects communities.

In this paper, I examine the role of public editor as a primary agent of journalistic accountability that is critical to trustworthy journalism. I contend that this accountability should include responsibility and power to hold news organisations to account for diversity, inclusion and the journalism of equality that represents the broader publics’ interests.

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That demands a strong, independent public-facing role with a proactive oversight mandate and some measure of executive power to investigate, identify and call out systemic issues that cause journalism to fall short of its professional standards and public responsibilities. Further, journalism’s standards and professional values must evolve and expand to include diversity, inclusion and equality as core ethical principles of journalism well within the remit for public editors to hold to account in seeking to serve diverse publics (plural). 

This reckoning for relevance thus envisions a publics’ editor for the 21st century. And, I have even written the job description for you.