“You hold journalists accountable in much the same way that the media holds the public accountable.”
That’s what Marc Duvoisin, Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Times, told about 40 ombudsmen gathered in L.A. for the annual meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen last week.
However, he warned: “It’s conceivable that ombudsmen can be captured by their newsrooms” and fail to provide the tough, independent oversight that the job entails.
That’s not conceivable in Washington State. Why? Because there are no active, full-time ombudsmen at any news organization in this state anymore. The few news outlets that ever had ombudsmen – to hear complaints, resolve disputes and hold journalists accountable for inaccurate, unfair, or unethical reporting – all have eliminated the position.
The Washington News Council acts as an “outside ombudsman” for print, broadcast and online news media in Washington State. We review complaints from individuals or organizations who believe they have been damaged by flawed stories about them. We are independent and autonomous, funded by private donations. We accept no government support and are not subsidized by any media organizations. We’re also now the only news council left in the United States, since Minnesota’s closed its doors two years ago.
The number of ombudsmen at U.S. news organizations has also declined in the last few years, due mainly to financial problems in the industry. However, ONO membership has grown by 38 percent overall because new ombudsmen are being named in other countries around the world.
The concept of news ombudsmanship is actually 100 years old this year, according to Al Stavitsky, Dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was keynote speaker at the ONO convention.
In 1913, Ralph Pulitzer, owner of The New York World, established a Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play at his newspaper. His goal was to improve standards in the age of “yellow journalism,” Stavitsky said. The Bureau’s director reviewed citizen complaints, solicited responses from reporters and editors, and wrote back to complainants addressing their concerns.
Decades later, Norman Isaacs, Editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, created an ombudsman position at his newspaper in Kentucky, which inspired others nationwide. But many newspapers – including most recently The Washington Post — have eliminated the position as a full-time job.
Stavitsky titled his talk, “Pundits in Pajamas,” and noted: “Lots of media criticism is now available online.” But he asked: “Does all that online commentary accomplish what an ombudsman would accomplish? Can independent media critics, tweeters, bloggers or in-house media writers accomplish much the same thing as ombudsmen formerly did? Some say, ‘We can live without ombudsmen because there’s so much media criticism out there.’ But is that enough? My answer is no. Independent media commentary can amplify and supplement the work that ombudsmen do, but it can’t replace them.”
Stavitsky advised: “Leverage your core mission by engaging the crowd, but not at the expense of your own analysis. Use new tools to assess the state of journalism. Step up your game. Keep fighting the good fight. Your work has never been more important.”
Kirk LaPointe, former ombudsman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the new executive director of ONO, said today’s challenge is “information literacy.” He teaches media ethics at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and observed: “There’s lots of news advocacy. We should help people understand and make sense of all the noise out there. Help everyone be more media literate, not just students.”
[NOTE: LaPointe will be the speaker at a Washington News Council breakfast on June 12 at The Rainier Club. Call 206.262.9793 for more details.]
But many ombudsmen, who work for media outlets that are struggling financially, may be hesitant to alienate their bosses or to offend colleagues they see every day. The position is sometimes called “the loneliest job in the newsroom” – even by ombudsmen themselves.
Margreet Vermeulen, ombudsman at De Volkskraant newspaper in Amsterdam, told the group that there are now only two ombudsmen left in The Netherlands, down from 12 not long ago. “Yes, newspapers are an endangered species and so are news ombudsmen in my country,” she said. “Ombudsmen are not seen as part of the solution.”
Stephen Pritchard, ombudsman of The Observer in London and president of ONO’s board, said: “We’ve got to get more ballsy about what we do. How can we redefine ourselves? Traditional media, if it’s going to survive, must be credible. Credibility is an incredibly serious issue for news organizations.” Pritchard advised his fellow ombudsmen to: survey their audience’s views of their role; write about all the cases they handle in a year; go out and talk to the public at schools, colleges, town halls and community centers; use social media, especially Twitter, to publicize what they do; and write better, more entertaining columns. “Don’t be dull!”
Rhonda Shearer, founder of iMediaEthics.org, a national media-critique site, called on ombudsmen to be tougher on their own profession: “Take off the boxing gloves and use bare fists. Start reporting on what goes on inside the newsroom. Name names. This is a messy business. There’s a lot of arm-wrestling that goes on in newsrooms. When we’re writing, there should be more of a window into behind-the-scenes emails, conversations between reporters and editors. Show more of the messiness of the business.” She added: “Think like a reporter. What would be of interest to the larger public? Do more inside baseball.”
Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and former ombudsman at The Washington Post, had this advice: “It’s a matter of doing our job more conscientiously, writing fair but tougher columns and not shying away from anything. If you don’t challenge journalists, their standards begin to slip. Reporters may not like it, but they know deep down when they were wrong.” Getler added: “The ombudsman’s role is to remain independent. You need to have somebody in-house who can be critical. Show you can take a punch, and not just give a punch.”
Edward Schumacher-Matos, ombudsman for National Public Radio (NPR), agreed:
“I do think we need to step up our game. It means much more than just being a judge, but engaging the audience more in the new trends that are happening in the newsrooms.” He responds to all complaints online, he said. “And sometimes I don’t even rule. I just toss out questions. I may say, ‘I don’t know; what do you think?’ I’ve tried to get our reporters to engage online with me. We talk about these things in the newsroom. Why don’t we have that discussion online, moderated by the ombudsman?”
Ed Wasserman, dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, has proposed “credentialing” by ONO of interested citizens who would be trained in media ethics, and then act as “public ombudsmen” in their communities. Wasserman conceded it would take a lot of work, significant funding, and entrepreneurial leadership. But in the new digital media age, a broader view of ombudsmanship may be needed.
“We’re protecting a practice, not a practitioner,” Wasserman said. “We should come up with a set of principles of ombudsmanship if we’re going to take this on the road.” He noted: “Mistakes stay forever. Errors hurt. Corrections seldom catch up with them. And people don’t believe corrections.” However, he added: “The courts aren’t the best place to resolve complaints….Don’t give up on rigorous standards of verification and fact-checking. There’s no substitute for good journalism that gets it right in the first place.”
David Jordan, editorial policy and standards editor of the BBC in London, added: “We’re all in the business of trust in our institutions, and we’re all in the business of accountability….The links between the expectations of your readership, and the link to accuracy, are strong. An ombudsman contributes to the bottom line by contributing to the trust of readers in the newspaper. If you can’t establish that, you’re in trouble.”
In other parts of the world, some innovative efforts are under way. Among the most interesting is in Argentina, where Cynthia Ottaviano is the new ombudsman for the Argentinian Public Broadcast Authority’s Defensoria del Publico. It was created by the Argentinian Parliament but has no sanctioning capacity. It holds public hearings, hears complaints, does educational forums and reaches out to the unions, schools and others nationwide. Ottaviano told the ONO group:
“Our role is that of servers, as a mediator, as a bridge. Our advocacy is for the public, the readers, the viewers, the listeners. Why do we not incorporate ways to allow the audience to generate a debate on the standards that we defend? Why can’t we have them participate and get involved? Be proactive. Hand out media codes of ethics. Invite the participation of everybody. Then the audience can be the ones to judge the complaints. Without participation, there is no democracy.”
Yavuz Baydar, ombudsman at Sabah in Istanbul, Turkey, was part of a group that visited Egypt recently to discuss media reform in the Middle East. People from Libya and Jordan also attended, and most of the participants were women, Baydar said. In a workshop on media self-regulation, journalists were encouraged to set up media councils, hear complaints from readers, viewers, and listeners, and take criticism from other journalists.
“The pressure for media accountability is high,” in the Middle East, Baydar said. “Only 10% of the stories are accurate. Some form of media self-regulation is needed.”
After three days of meetings and informal discussions, a universal consensus on the role of news ombudsmen was elusive, at best. ONO members all know that the media-accountability game has changed, and are trying to find their most effective role in the new online digital age.
As Kirk LaPointe, the new ONO executive director, put it: “In the past, the public connected through letters and phone calls. Today, there’s a whole lot of connecting going on through comments, media criticism, blogs, and other organizations. If ombudsmen don’t address it, you run the risk of being irrelevant. You should pay attention to other things that play a role in the reputation of your organization. There needs to be new consideration given to what’s being said about the journalistic conduct of every media organization.”
Jeffrey Dvorkin, the outgoing ONO executive director and former ombudsman at NPR, asked: “Are we doing an old job in a new media environment? ONO is really about a discourse. There are more people engaged in that discourse than at any time in the history of the world. There’s lots more media criticism now, but they’re not doing it very well. Ombudsmen have to be more evangelical. We’re doing the right job at the right time. And we’re needed now more than ever.”
In the closing session, Stephen Pritchard added: “I can’t remember an ONO conference where we talked so intensely about the job!” Then the meeting was adjourned – with the future of news ombudsmanship still unclear. Needed now more than ever? Perhaps. But to do what, exactly?
NOTE: The Washington News Council will hear a formal complaint against The Seattle Times at a public hearing on June 1 at Town Hall (9 am to noon). Audience members will be invited to vote along with the WNC’s Hearings Board. The hearing will be videotaped and webcast by TVW, and online viewers will be able to vote as well. No news council in the world has ever done this, as far as we know. It’s an experiment in expanding the concept of “outside ombudsmanship” to the public. Join us! Weigh in!