Journalism Needs More Ombudsmen AND News Councils

Craig Silverman gives keynote speech to #ONO2011 meeting in Montreal. John Hamer of WNC (bald spot on left) listens along with Michael Getler, ombudsman of PBS (bald head on right).

“It’s really important that we have accountability mechanisms in journalism. When it comes to our own accountability, most news organizations are doing a pretty poor job, to be blunt.”

Craig Silverman, in keynote speech to Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) annual convention, Montreal

Craig Silverman, a regular columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and The Toronto Star, is also author of “Regret the Error – How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.” 

In his talk to the world’s ombudsmen last week, Silverman cited several studies which found that 40 to 60 percent of news stories contained some kind of error! A comprehensive survey of U.S. newspapers found the highest error rate on record.
“We’ve been telling people for literally hundreds of years that when we make a mistake we correct it,” Silverman said. But the U.S. study found a correction rate of only about 2 percent.

“That is pretty outrageous,” Silverman said. “If we’re only correcting 2 percent of errors, we’re not meeting our own standards. It represents a serious failure on the part of news organizations.”

“Reporters will be inclined to not want to run a correction, because they’ve been trained that that’s a bad thing,” Silverman said. “They need to change that attitude.” He’s right on both counts.

What’s more, errors are “now forever,” because they are cached online, and spread worldwide by Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., Silverman noted. Dealing with complaints about errors is one of the jobs of news ombudsmen – and also of news or press councils.

I joined the Organization of News Ombudsmen as an associate member last year, partly because I love the acronym – ONO! – but also because the Washington News Council is a kind of “outside ombudsman” for news media in this state.

Unfortunately, there are no full-time ombudsmen at any news organizations in our state anymore. That’s too bad. Over the years when I was at The Seattle Times, they had four different ombudsmen. A couple of them were pretty good. I edited their columns, which ran on the editorial pages.

Ombudsmen hear and respond to complaints from readers, viewers or listeners about news stories that are arguably inaccurate, unfair, imbalanced and/or unethical. That’s also what news or press councils do – and what we have done for the past 13 years.

Some say ombudsmen – since they are employed by the news outlets, have offices in or near the newsrooms, and generally know the editors, reporters, and producers – can deal with complaints more effectively. Of course, since their salaries are paid by those they are hired to critique, some also may question their level of independence. But most try to be fair, thorough and constructively critical. Many do criticize their own newspapers, broadcast stations, and/or websites strongly – and they’re often not too popular in newsrooms.

Also, the number of ombudsmen around the world has declined over the years – especially in the United States. ONO now has about 60 members worldwide, with only 20 in the U.S. Many media organizations say they simply can’t afford the position anymore, when they don’t even have enough reporters to cover their local communities.

Ombudsmen’s jobs have been eliminated at many American newspapers in recent decades – including at The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At the same time, some of the best American newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today – have created or enhanced the position, although some are called “public editors” or “reader representatives.” There are also experienced ombudsmen at most major broadcast news outlets worldwide. In this country, only PBS, NPR and now ESPN have ombudsmen.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, former NPR ombudsman who now is executive director of ONO, told his colleagues in Montreal: “The ombudsman’s job is like being on the front lines of the First Amendment…We’re in between the public and the editors. We point out the warts and flaws. The [news] organization doesn’t want to hear it. We’re speaking truth to power.”

Jacob Mollerup, the current president of ONO whose title is “Listeners and Viewers Editor” at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Copenhagen, wryly described the job as “a lonely hell.”

He was only half joking. ONO members often say they have “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” Most journalists don’t like to hear complaints about their work and are reluctant to make corrections or explain their performance in public – which is what they always demand of those they cover. Double standard? Unquestionably.

The annual ONO conference is an opportunity for attendees to come together, swap stories, compare tactics, and commiserate with others who are in the same boat. Three days of panels, speakers and “shop talk” – with a few dinners and receptions thrown in – clearly have a therapeutic effect.

A draft business plan, sent out in advance and discussed on the final day of the gathering, notes that ONO’s first goal should be as a “meeting place and discussion forum.” The Montreal conference, for the first time, was simultaneously translated into English, French and Spanish, which was a great help to all.

Another goal is outreach – promoting ombudsmanship in cooperation with partners around the world. That includes to “be a serious partner in media projects where different organizations join forces in order to promote media accountability.”

A third is to expand the organization: “ONO should welcome members of independent press councils as associates.” I was invited to speak on a panel at their convention last year at Oxford University on how ombudsmen and press councils can work more closely together. And Mollerup recently attended the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE) conference.

A final goal is to keep an open mind for new projects and ways of promoting media accountability – including in cyberspace. That’s precisely what the WNC has been doing for the last few years, and I shared some of our ideas with ONO members:

  1. Report an Error. Silverman and Scott Rosenberg of MediaBugs have developed a new online “Report an Error” system now being used by about 100 news sites and blogs. The WNC has been working with them and we now have the “Report an Error” widget on this site. We invite readers to report errors in Pacific Northwest media as we test this intriguing new system.
  2. NewsTrust.net. We also invite them to nominate and review state and regional stories on our NewsTrust.net widget. You must register to become a reviewer and it’s a great tool, especially to praise high-quality stories.
  3. Online community.  People may join our online community and begin participating in discussions of various topics. Our groups have grown steadily.
  4. Online Media Guide. We’re also developing a new Online Media Guide (OMG) for Washington news and information sources, which will be a valuable resource for journalists, public-affairs professionals, politicians, academics, etc.

One of the most interesting speakers in Montreal was Guy Amyot, executive secretary of the Press Council of Quebec. His council, unlike some others in Canada and elsewhere, hears complaints about print, broadcast and online news media, not just newspapers.

“It is the liberty of the press to be independent from any power structure, but because of this freedom they have to be accountable,” Amyot said. “The media are not obliged to name ombudsmen and are also not obliged to join press councils.” But, he strongly suggested, they should do both. He’s absolutely right.

In order to maintain public trust and credibility, all those practicing journalism need to be more transparent, accountable and open. Ombudsmen and news councils can clearly help – if more journalists would only listen.

Share

Reportback – Hacks/Hackers Seattle & Knight-Mozilla News Innovation Challenge

Mozilla is best known for Firefox, the open source darling loved by millions which showed us that a browser is more than just a way to load websites, it’s a way to customize your experience of the web itself. Under new direction from Mark Surman, Mozilla is growing new legs to go beyond Firefox. They recently launched #Drumbeat as an effort to do more than just build portals, they are now seeking to change the flesh and bones of the internet itself to make it more open, accessible, and free (see project examples from drumbeat.org).

It was recently announced that Mozilla received a hefty sum of money from the Knight Foundation to bring journalism along for the ride.

The three year Knight-Mozilla News Challenge dubbed #MoJo (for Mozilla + Journalism) is now in full throttle with five news partners on board (BBC, Al-Jazeera, Boston Globe, Zeit Online, and The Guardian) who will host five fellows with full salary to innovate from inside the newsroom. 10 more fellows will come along the way in the next coming years, but until then, the heat is on and challenge submissions are underway.

Mozilla asked me to link up with the Seattle chapter of Hacks/Hackers, an organization that shares a similar MoJo hybrid theory of bringing together journalists (hacks) + technologists (hackers) with the goal of changing news for the better. One week later we threw together a sold out Brainstorm 2011 that brought in journalists and technologists throughout the city who came to mash up ideas and enter the challenge. [Read more...]

Share

The future of #Journalism will be run by cats?

(cross posted form the Seattle Journalism Commons)

Part two of the #NewsNext series brought to us by the Online News Association/Society of Professional Journalists collaboration featured a lively discussion with Cory Bergman (msnbc.com, breakingnews.com, Next Door Media) and Ben Huh (Cheezburger Networks).

As the owner of the largest humor network in the world, you’ve probably stumbled upon one of his many sites FAIL Blog, Babies Making Faces, There I Fixed It, Engrish Funny The Daily Wh.at, Totally Looks Like either on purpose or by accident through a social network.

Many people in the online news circuit cover Huh for his ability to turn internet memes into a profitable enterprise (his company employs 50 staff and they’re looking for more) and has been consistently topping the Seattle 2.0 startup index for the last year.

Instead of his typical appearance to discuss the secrets behind making something go viral (he says consistency is much more important), this particular room full of people wanted to hear his ideas on keeping journalism strong. Coming out of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern in 1999, he never became a reporter, but has been thinking of ways to fix what he sees as a lingering problem in online news.

“The story structure hasn’t changed for hundreds of years…how many times have you read a story and think by the third paragraph didn’t I already read this before?”

Huh believes that we have lost touch with the golden days of journalism where everything was partisan and there were multiple diverse points of views fighting for what they think is right.

But isn’t that what we have now? [Read more...]

Share

Last U.S. News Council Standing: Q & A with John Hamer, Washington News Council

As you may have heard, we are keeping up the fight as the last fully operating News Council standing in America. This has perked some attention from others who do the kind of work we strive for, to create a world of honest, accurate, news.

The Art Science Research Laboratory was founded by the late Stephen Jay Gould (yep, the same one), and his widow Rhonda Roland Shearer in 1996, who now manages the site StinkyJournalism.org. They’ve done some interesting work to promote scientific integrity in the news, including an extensive operation to fact check claims by popular anthropologist Jared Diamond that involved sending three researchers to tribal Papua New Guinea to uncover several mistruths about the indigenous tribe he reported on.

Rhonda gave us a call and spoke to Executive Director John Hamer to talk about our work at the News Council. Have a look at the full interview, and check out some of their media reports.

Here’s a little preview, where John talks about the challenges of running our operation:

“Keeping the doors open has been a challenge for 13 years, but we’ve managed,” Hamer said, attributing the group’s success to ”hard work and perseverance” and a solid start. ”You’ve just gotta plug away, do your best, ignore your critics, always be the bigger person, reach out to people, when you find supporters embrace them, when you find critics, be respectful, answer their concerns face to face….

I got a wide range of people and we were nonpartisan or bipartisan.  A lot of people thought we’d be a right wing media bashing organization or a left wing media bashing organization. And I said no, we’re going to be very even, very fair, bipartisan. I can tick down our founding board — 6 Democrats, 6 Republicans. They might not have agreed on a lot of things, but they agreed on the need for accurate, ethical media.”

Also, the original council members were half journalists and half business people, including Bill Gates Sr. “To have him sign on as one of our original council members, our credibility just went through the roof.”

“I think that it is a loss for American journalism that we’re the only one,” Hamer said.  “I think every state should have a news council like ours, or some kind of outside independent organization that can provide…oversight in a way. But we don’t police. We’re not a watchdog.”

READ MORE

Share

TAO of Journalism gets national press on MediaBistro.com

We were thrilled to hear from Lauren Rabaino who blogs for 10,000 Words “Where Journalism and Technology Meet.” Lauren was equally thrilled to find out about our TAO of Journalism campaign and called up Executive Director John Hamer for a nice little feature piece.

Read about it here and share the love!

“TAO Of Journalism” Project Wants to Crowdsource Ethics, Increase Transparency

Share