I have spent the past couple of days reading Journalism Right and Wrong by Ian Mayes, the former readers’ editor at the Guardian, and it has led me to reflect on just how important that role is to the future of newspapers.
Every newspaper I can think of now talks about engaging directly with its readers, whether it’s asking for comments on its website, featuring readers’ letters or using the latest wave of social media to tell readers about news as it happens. These are, of course, all steps in the right direction, but don’t you sometimes wonder how much attention is actually given to readers’ opinions?
The reflections included in the above-mentioned book demonstrate that yes, journalists (at the Guardian in this instance) do spend time considering readers’ responses across a wide range of issues, from policies on the manipulation of pictures or coverage of conflict to the use of swear words and inaccurate or pejorative terms to describe minority groups. I believe that The Observer, the Daily Mirror and The Independent all have similarly-placed news ombudsmen or readers’ editors, and also that The Sun has a lower-profile version of the same position, and I only wish that other UK newspapers would follow suit. Aside from dealing with complaints, the presence of a weekly column explaining the reasons for certain editorial decisions and demonstrating that these issues are actually given consideration is a very useful exercise in helping readers understand the various pressures of the newsroom.
The readers’ ability to reply to an article, whether through the traditional medium of the letters page or more recent innovations such as comments on websites or social media, is still an imperfect tool in creating a true dialogue between journalist and reader. I firmly believe that a readers’ editor, providing that he or she is independent of newspaper management, can be a crucial mediator between the two. The position provides an opportunity for an experienced and respected reporter to reflect on journalistic practice, update current policies where they are in need of revision, and act as an advocate for readers who might otherwise be ignored.