Toronto Star public editor Kathy English launched an impassioned defence of her newspaper’s series into how the Special Investigations Unit reviews police use of force. But is that her job?
Watchdog journalism is the core of a quality news organization’s commitment to public service and central to the media’s role in a democracy. The goal of watchdog journalism is to serve as “a surrogate for the public” and see to it that people in power are held accountable to the public they serve. It should aim to give voice to the voiceless.
That’s what journalists who attended the first Nieman Watchdog Journalism Conference at Harvard University in 1998 were told. In the decade since, far too many news organizations have pulled back from this critical task of watchdog reporting, quite likely because such reporting is most often time-consuming and expensive. Many lament that media watchdogs have become lapdogs to power.
As the “paper for the people,” the Star has long committed itself to journalism that makes an impact and holds the powerful to account. Indeed, in the past couple of years, it has stepped up this commitment to investigative reporting.
As one of the most powerful institutions in our midst, police should face scrutiny by the media acting as surrogates for citizens. Probing the SIU, which was created in 1990 after a series of police shootings of black civilians, is well in line with the media’s watchdog mandate.
The Public Editor position encompasses the roles of reader advocate and guarantor of accuracy, serving as a liaison between the Star and its many readers, both print and online. …
I guess English’s role was more the former than the latter in this case. She’s not really talking about any inaccuracies or other problems with the stories. Instead, she’s talking about the paper’s duty to cover them.
To a certain extent, shouldn’t that be the job of either publisher John Cruickshank or editor Michael Cooke?
One problem with English’s position is that she’s on the staff of the Toronto Star. Her counterpart at the New York Times (currently Arthur S. Brisbane) is on contract for a two-year period. From his job description:
The public editor works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about articles published in the paper. His opinions and conclusions are his own.
I haven’t really seen the NYT public editors use their time to defend the paper’s right to run investigative series. I would think English would be better off spending her time looking at actual complaints about the content of the series and judging whether or not they have merit.
That being said, good on the Star for using its considerable investigative resources to take a hard look at an important agency such as the SIU.