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How can we build confidence and trust? By scrutinising ourselves

In this time of flux, journalism’s contribution to democratic society seems more necessary than at any period I can recall – and more pressured. My career has recently passed the 40-year mark, and I have never felt so energised.

Work that helps ensure the quality of journalism feels especially worthwhile. A readers’ editor — or any media self-regulator — strives to contribute, mostly indirectly, to the overall quality of an organisation’s output. The remit is more detailed and the reality more complicated, but that is the main aim.

The role of readers’ editor has three main functions: investigate and respond to readers’ complaints; consult and decide on corrections and clarifications; and consider readers’ views – while seeking those of journalists – with the improvement and development of the Guardian in mind. A typical week can produce difficult ethical questions concerning, say, privacy, open justice or source protection, a batch of “simple” accuracy issues, a range of sometimes funny minor slip-ups, and a clutch of finer points on diverse subjects.

More than 30,000 inquiries annually reach the fine, small team who work with me in this office. These include a broad array of criticism, praise, chiding, suggestion and encouragement for Guardian journalism. We try to read all your correspondence, but cannot respond personally to everyone in detail, and trust that you will understand.

It takes self-confidence for any news organisation to grant a readers’ editor genuine independence, as does the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian for the sole purpose of maintaining its independent journalism. Like the editor-in-chief, the readers’ editor is appointed and removable only by the trust. It can be discomfiting when that independence is exercised in a particular case, but I believe it would shame the Guardian more if the readers’ editor did not use this independence.

The Scott Trust: video explainer

In my first year in this role, I have been privileged to see many sides of this transitioning organisation – its challenges, depth of talent, frailties, verve. I have acquired some understanding of readers’ passions, reflexes and moods, and experienced the intensity of their engagement with an institution which over time has earned their familiarity, affection, trust, support and, on occasion, forgiveness.

I am the Guardian’s fourth readers’ editor, and the first formally to have global responsibilities. This change takes account of expanded editorial operations in the US and Australia, and the vast international audience for the Guardian’s digital journalism, viewed by about 140 million unique browsers monthly.

This growth in readers and their willingness to comment on Guardian stories, along with the amount of journalism the Guardian publishes, has a potential impact on the readers’ editor. My challenge is to keep up as the Guardian navigates huge technological, commercial and social forces in an effort to ensure a sustainable future.

And for everything known to humankind, there seems to be a Guardian reader who is expert and ready to tell us — in sorrow, anger, good humour or in hope — how we can do better. Many of your points are addressed swiftly by the editorial team that published the material. In the interests of quality, we correct or clarify online much that is well below the “significant inaccuracy” threshold at which Guardian policy requires a correction. Less of that can be done in the paper because of space and time limitations.

Corrections and clarifications (C&Cs) signal a commitment to accountability and quality. Newspaper readers will be familiar with the daily column on the letters page — on the website, you can read the column here. In 2011, C&Cs in print outnumbered those online roughly two to one, with a total of 1,528. By 2016 the picture was very different: online C&Cs outnumbered print almost three to one, and the total was 3,618.

Online, the benefits of correction and clarification are fast and tangible, as articles are improved and the quality of the digital archive is more assured. Search engines hunt with increasing sophistication, so the pursuit of accuracy feels ever more urgent. Information, always protean, is more potent in digital form because it can keep returning, along with any flaws, for reuse in fresh contexts.

As podcasts and videos continue to grow in popularity alongside our more traditional output of text and still images, the Guardian audience now comprises readers, listeners and viewers. This convergence of historically separate media has put pressure on editorial codes mostly drafted for newspapers circulating within one country. Editorial teams now operate in three countries with differing legal and policy environments. Refreshed codes can also help to develop the journalistic potential of virtual reality, live streaming and artificial intelligence in ways compatible with long-held ethical values. And they can encourage systematic challenge to fake news.

After working as a journalist, lawyer and independent statutory officeholder with public responsibilities, I am familiar with codes and complaint-handling. I experienced as a journalist many of the tactics used against journalists trying to make legitimate public interest disclosures. From other career episodes I can recall the feeling of being treated unfairly by the media. In my current work, hearing from complainants and then from reporters and editors about the same case, I sometimes find myself listening differently with each ear.

I try always to consider competing views, to maintain a sense of proportion and to decide fairly. I cannot promise always to agree, with readers or journalists. I trust that no one would want otherwise having considered the Guardian’s character and the importance of authentic self-regulation to a free and responsible press.

There are positives to handling complaints — although they can get lost amid the negatives inevitably experienced by both sides when controversies are hot. Cooled, after a case is over, usually something is learned. Sometimes, a series of similar complaints can point the way to a systemic improvement. Part of the editorial code may be shown to need updating; a style guide amendment may suggest itself; the seed of another, better piece of journalism may be planted when an earlier article is reviewed.

Even if the decision goes against them, those affected can feel that at least they have been heard and that the complexities of the issue are better understood. Journalism which is scrutinised — the way journalists scrutinise others — and proved to be sound can build trust and confidence. Investigating complaints can mean wrongs are righted, and although they may seem minor, they can matter very much to the people affected.

For democracies to thrive, journalists and audiences need each other. A readers’ editor’s work is to try to bring them closer, sparks and all.

Paul Chadwick has been the Guardian’s global readers’ editor since June 2016