Remarks from my “refirement” party

John Hamer gives remarks at his "refirement" photo by Brian Glanz

John Hamer gives remarks at his "refirement"

Thank you ALL for coming. I really appreciate your being here to help me celebrate my “refirement” as I’m calling it. And I truly mean that. It has been a GREAT 15-year run, but I’m excited about this transition to a new stage of my life. A lot of you have asked me what I plan to do next. Well, I have a long “to do” list that includes spending more time with my first grandchild in L.A., and we have another one on the way. I also plan to do more volunteering, more mentoring or tutoring, more writing, maybe some teaching – and of course more hiking, biking, kayaking, reading, drinking and napping! Especially napping.

But I’m not retiring completely. One project may be to archive the history of the WA News Council, as many of you have suggested. We’d like to preserve our legacy somehow. Suzie Burke, our current WNC Board Chair, has graciously offered space for an exhibit at History House in Fremont, so the News Council will be immortalized not far from the Lenin Statue, the J.P. Patches Statue, and the Fremont Troll – which somehow seems very appropriate. Suzie said there’s only one condition: I have to ride as a Naked Bicyclist in the Fremont Solstice Parade in June. I’m sending Mike Egan in my place, since he’s already done that, as the picture of Mike at Suzie’s Gridiron Roast shows. We also got a lot of nice comments when we announced our closing, and if you’d like to add YOUR comments (Pro or Con!), please do so tonight. There’s a bulletin board at the side of the room.

David Horsey congratulates John Hamer and the WNC, alongside other good wishes. photo by Brian Glanz

David Horsey congratulates John Hamer and the WNC, alongside other good wishes.

When we started the News Council back in 1998, many people predicted we wouldn’t survive — including some of our original Founders and Board Members! A lot of other people HOPED we wouldn’t survive, including most journalists in this state, especially some of my oldest friends and colleagues in the newsrooms around town. Right, David Horsey? There’s an old saying: “Never pick a fight with someone who buys their ink by the barrel.” Well, we picked a fight with those who not only bought ink by the barrel, but airtime by the year and pixels by the billions! But as the years went by, even some of my old journalist friends grudgingly accepted us – especially as long as they didn’t have complaints filed against them! The media didn’t always like our complaint and hearing process — but the public loved it! We helped a lot of people who were damaged by media malpractice and had nowhere else to turn. We helped them get their reputations back, in public.

It hasn’t been easy. We’re not a nonprofit that houses the homeless, feeds the hungry, cures the sick, cleans the environment, supports the arts or saves the animals. We’ve just tried to keep the news media accurate, fair, honest and ethical – which I believe affects all sectors of our society. I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t firmly believe that the news media are the lifeblood of our democracy, and it’s absolutely vital that we have high-quality news and information to make decisions. Today there’s a valid concern about whether we’re getting that – especially since everyone is a journalist today, or at least they think they are. We are all deluged 24/7 with news, blogs, opinion, rumors, videos, photos, from all over the world. I call it a “cyber-tsunami” and we’re in danger of drowning in it. But who can be trusted to be accurate, fair and ethical? These days, you just have to make up your own minds. That’s one reason the WNC is closing: A little citizens’ group like ours is really challenged to keep up. But we tried, and I’m very proud of what we accomplished over 15 years.

Bill Gates Sr., enjoying remarks during Hamer's retirement. photo by Brian Glanz

Bill Gates Sr., during Hamer's remarks.

WNC wouldn’t have survived without the help of everyone in this room, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. My hat is off to you! You gave your time, your talent, and your treasure to help us. Some of you had more time, some more talent, and some more treasure. But you all helped, even if just with your moral support.

One person I want to single out tonight is Bill Gates Sr. The WNC literally would not be here without Bill. Patsy Bullit Collins, may she RIP, was on our Founding Board. She told Bill about the WNC and urged him to join our first Working Board. I’ll never forget the day when my fax machine started clicking and an application came with Bill’s name on it. I thought: Nah, this is a joke from one of my friends. But we had a section that asked: What experience do you have that would be helpful to the News Council? And Bill wrote: “A lot of experience.” Period. I thought, Wow, maybe it really is him!

So I called the number on the application and left a message, and Bill called back and said, Yes, he wanted to join our Board. And I said, we’ll have to think about that and we’ll put him on the waiting list…NO, I said he was on Board! He said he was pretty busy running what was then the William H. Gates Foundation, so he might not make it to all our meetings. Well, he almost never missed a meeting in all the years he was on the Board. He did miss one when he said he had to fly to London. I asked what was going on in London. He said his son was being knighted by the Queen. I said, now THAT’S a pretty lame excuse! But Bill’s help was truly extraordinary — financial, intellectual and ethical. I learned so much from you, Bill – about the simple things that are so important in life no matter what we do: Saying thank-you to those who help you, returning phone calls and emails expeditiously (which you always do), being persistent in the face of obstacles. For those who don’t know Bill’s little book, “Showing Up for Life,” I can’t recommend it highly enough. Lots of wisdom here. It’s a great read.

Some say that 80% of life is just showing up, and the other 20% is knowing when to move on. Well, I’m moving on after tonight, and I want to thank some others who have been especially helpful. There is another person without whom the WNC wouldn’t exist, and that’s Kathy Schrier, my half-time Executive Assistant. Kathy came on board almost 10 years ago and she really kept the place running, plus she had the patience to put up with me and all my crazy ideas. Kathy, you’ve been fabulous. And I genuinely can’t thank you enough.

During a loud round of applause for Kathy Schrier. photo by Brian Glanz

During a loud round of applause for Kathy Schrier.

Even after we close the doors of our office upstairs, Kathy and I will continue to maintain the TAO of Journalism Website and promote the TAO concept nationwide and worldwide. These TAO of Journalism “TAOttoos” as we call them were Kathy’s idea, and I want ALL of you to put one on tonight. They last about a week or so, or will come off with soap and water. We have people all over the world who have taken the TAO Pledge and display the seal in print or online, including hundreds of high-school journalists all over the U.S. We have bloggers in India, website sin Australia, and the B-Town Blog in Burien. Our goal is to keep nudging it out there as a way to help anyone doing journalism to gain credibility and earn trust. If journalism is going to matter, it must be trusted – and if it is to be trusted, it must be Transparent about who they are, Accountable if they make mistakes and Open to other points of view. That’s a pretty low bar! It should be a no-brainer. So we’ll keep the TAO going as long as we can. Any proceeds from our WNC Estate/Office/Garage Sale items in the back table will go to TAO website maintenance, mailings of TAOttoos and TAO nylon flyers. So buy something or throw a little money in the pot to help us. Just TAO it!

Now I want to call out a few more people who have helped us. My current Board Chair, Suzie Burke, who has been absolutely vital to our success. And as one of the savviest business people in Seattle, plus one of the most generous philanthropists I know, she kept me focused on the bottom line. My other Board officers, Vice President Heidi Kelly (who was on our original organizing committee in 1998) and Treasurer Tom Ranken. You have been a great team.

John Hamer and current Board Chair, Suzie Burke enjoy Mike Egan's remarks. photo by Brian Glanz

John Hamer and current Board Chair, Suzie Burke enjoy Emcee Mike Egan's remarks.

My past Board Presidents: Stephen Silha, David Schaefer and Cyrus Krohn. Can’t thank you all enough. All those who are on the Board or are Board Members Emeritus, raise your hands. Steve Boyer, whose idea it was to start a News Council in this state. Steve, I blame you for my so-called career. Steve was on our original Organizing Committee, along with my wife, Mariana Parks, Bill Baldwin, Chuck Nordhoff, Heidi Kelly, Joel Horn and Sandy Schoolfield. Thank you all!

I want to thank those who came to us with Complaints: Dr. Richard Wollert and Sheriff John Urquhart. Any others here? Leschi School? Vitae Foundation? Beef and Dairy Commissions? It took courage for you to stand up to the news media that damaged you with inaccurate stories. Thank you. I hope we helped you get your reputations back in public. Our process wasn’t perfect, but it sure beat a letter to the editor and was lots cheaper and faster than a libel suit.

Raise your hand if you donated to the WNC over the past 15 years, whether it was $50 or $100 a year, or as a member of our “100 Friends of the WNC” at the $1,000 level (Herb Bridge, Tom Hayward, Suzie Burke, Karen Seinfeld, others?). If you’re looking for other ways to help improve journalism, Stephen Silha and Peggy Holman are running a group called Journalism That Matters, which I’ve been involved with over the years. Our TAO of Journalism actually started at JTM meeting in Washington, D.C., several years ago. Talk to Stephen and Peggy to learn more about how JTM will help carry on some of the work of the News Council in a larger arena. They’re doing good stuff nationwide.

All of our young WNC interns and scholarship winners over the years, raise your hands. You were a great group, and we were glad to help you – we always paid minimum wage! – and many of you got our $1,000 or $2,000 Dick Larsen or Herb Robinson Scholarships. We gave 30 of them over 15 years, and many of our interns and winners have gotten great jobs in journalism or politics – or both, there is some overlap there!

Part of the crowded room during Hamer's remarks. At right, his wife, Mariana Parks. photo by Brian Glanz

Part of the crowded room during Hamer's remarks. At right, his wife, Mariana Parks.

Our Gridiron West Dinners was one of the most fun events in Seattle every year, and several of you helped with that: Monica Tracey, our event planner; Jim Anderson of Cabaret Productions; Kevin Joyce of EnJoy Productions. All who sponsored tables at our annual Gridiron West Dinners to help “roast and toast” various people. There’s a PHOTO BOARD on the side table with some of the highlights of our 15 Gridiron West Dinners, so check it out.

And finally, our Emcee, Mike Egan, who I’m now going to give the mic so he can give you a little photo slideshow, followed by the “Open Mic Roast” which I know is why some of you came. If you want to say a few words about me, get your name on Mike’s list and he’ll call you in order. But you need to follow the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics in your remarks: Seek the Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; and Be Accountable. If you violate that code, I will GONG you off the stage. So get your facts right! I know I can trust you, just like we can all trust the media, right? Hah!

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Washington News Council to Close on May 31

The Washington News Council’s Board of Directors has announced that the organization will close its doors on May 31, 2014, after 15 years of holding this state’s news media publicly accountable for accuracy, fairness and ethics.

The WNC, founded in 1998, is the only news council left in the United States that reviews citizen complaints against media organizations and holds public hearings to review and vote on the quality of print, broadcast or online stories.

"We had a great 15-year run" – John Hamer

“We had a great 15-year run, and we helped a lot of people who were damaged by media malpractice,” said John Hamer, who co-founded the WNC and serves as its Executive Director and Board President. “But the news media have changed tectonically since we began. The eruption of online digital news and information made our mission of promoting high standards in journalism much more difficult, if not impossible. How can anyone oversee a cyber-tsunami?”

Hamer will retire this spring at age 68, as he announced in January to his Board of Directors, Founding Board and Board Members Emeritus. The WNC conducted a three-month national search for a new Executive Director. But after interviews and conversations with several applicants, the Board decided that a complete reinvention was needed, not just a new Executive Director.

“The News Council did a lot of fabulous work but it’s time for a restart,” said Suzie Burke, chair of the WNC’s Board of Directors and President of Fremont Dock Company. WNC Vice President Heidi Kelly and Treasurer Tom Ranken, who make up the Board’s Executive Committee along with Hamer, agreed.

Coverage of this announcement includes:

Hamer noted that the News Council’s public complaint and hearing process may be less effective in this new digital media age, when everyone is a “journalist” – or at least they think they are. “Who can oversee ethics on blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and all the other social media platforms? We’re all deluged daily with factoids, sound bites, rumors, opinion and commentary. Citizens just have to make up their own minds about who can be trusted in the media today.”

The WNC process could be updated for the new digital media age, Hamer said. “Our model was fine when we had only newspapers, TV and radio stations, and a few magazines. But now we get news and information online 24/7 in the palm of our hands. The public needs to find new ways to engage in media oversight and maybe take the news council concept to the next level,” Hamer said.

The WNC can point to a long list of accomplishments over the past 15 years:

Judge Karen G. Seinfeld leads the Hearings Board

Complaint Hearings. The WNC held 10 public hearings on citizen complaints against media organizations. All but one complaint (“Hubert Locke vs. The Seattle Times”) were upheld by open votes of the Council members after lengthy hearings. The WNC’s votes carry no legal weight, but are in-depth discussions of media accuracy and fairness, based on the media’s own journalism ethics codes. Several other complaints were informally mediated by the WNC to compromises that satisfied both sides.

The WNC’s last hearing, in the case of “Dr. Richard Wollert vs. The Seattle Times” was broadcast and webcast by TVW. Citizens around the globe voted and commented along with Council members, which was unprecedented in the history of news/press councils worldwide. The complaint was largely upheld.

Earlier efforts to engage the public in media oversight also broke new ground. At hearings on “Leschi School Community vs. KIRO7 Eyewitness News” and “Vitae Foundation vs. KUOW 94.9” the audience was invited to review the complaints and vote along with Council members. In “Sam Reed vs. KIRO7” there was no public hearing but citizens voted and commented online. In every case, voters upheld the complaints against the media outlets. “Sue Rahr vs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer” was also upheld by the Council. The P-I did not attend but submitted a lengthy written response that was read aloud at the hearing. It did not answer Sheriff Rahr’s concerns about the stories, however.

Hamer said: “We gave people a place to make their cases in public and a chance to get their reputations back. They were all extremely grateful for that, when they had nowhere else to turn short of costly and time-consuming libel suits, which are almost impossible to win. The Testimonials video on our website shows how much we helped people who came to us for assistance.” He added that a review process may be especially needed in now that inaccurate stories are perpetually accessible through search engines. “A smear lasts forever,” Hamer said. “A lie goes viral online before the truth gets rebooted.”

Anat Balint, Gal Uchovsky and John Hamer in a panel on "Ethical Dilemmas in the Age of Transparency" in Tel Aviv. Photo credit: Risto Uimonen

John Hamer on a panel in Tel Aviv

Public Forums. WNC sponsored or co-sponsored more than 20 panels or forums on media issues statewide, including events in Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma. It collaborated with the Society of Professional Journalists, Journalism That Matters, The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the University of Washington, Washington State University, Pacific Lutheran University, and others. Hamer spoke to Rotary clubs and other civic organizations all over the state about media ethics. WNC sponsored a media-ethics breakfast series with notable guest speakers. In addition, Hamer was a member of the global Organization of News Ombudsmen and attended three of their annual conferences. He was on panels at the ONO meeting at Oxford University in 2010, and at the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe conference in Tel Aviv in 2013.

Washington News Council 2013 Scholars and John Hamer

Washington News Council 2013 Scholars and John Hamer

Independent Audit. In 2007, the WNC published “Reporting on Yourself,” an independent outside critique of The Spokane Spokesman-Review’s coverage of the River Park Square project in downtown Spokane, whose developers also owned the newspaper. Editor Steve Smith requested the audit, which was unprecedented in the history of American journalism. The WNC spent months reviewing 10 years of S-R coverage and issued a critical report with specific recommendations. Under the terms of the WNC’s agreement to conduct the audit, the entire text was printed, unedited, in a Sunday issue of the newspaper. The project won the Ancil Payne Award for Media Ethics from the University of Oregon’s School of Communications and Journalism. Copies are available on request, and it is being used as a case study in journalism classes nationwide.

Student Education. Hamer visited dozens of high-school and college journalism classes statewide, often conducting “mock hearings” where students would review actual complaints and play the role of the News Council, voting on the merits of the cases. The WNC awarded 30 scholarships to Washington state students planning careers in communications. The $2,000 scholarships were named after former Seattle Times Editors Dick Larsen and Herb Robinson. Receptions for the winners and their families were held every year since 2000. The WNC also hired student interns every year since 1998, and paid them minimum wage to assist in the office and help at WNC events.

Visit TAOofJournalism.org

TAO of Journalism. WNC originated this concept several years ago. It allows anyone practicing any form of journalism worldwide to take the “TAO Pledge” to be Transparent, Accountable and Open and post the TAO Seal in print or online. The TAO Pledge is totally voluntary and is not overseen by the News Council, but by the pledger’s audience of readers, viewers or listeners. The TAO of Journalism idea is spreading globally and is especially popular among student journalists. The national Journalism Education Association endorsed it and held three national “TAO Pledge Days” for American high-school journalists. Kathy Schrier, WNC Executive Assistant and Executive Director of the Washington JEA, continues to promote the TAO concept at twice-annual student journalism conventions nationwide. TAO Pledgers include bloggers and websites as far away as Asia, the Caribbean and Australia. Pledgers receive a TAO poster, stick-on “TAOttoos” and TAO nylon flyers, as well as a digital TAO Seal that they may print or post. “It’s so important to instill these ethical values in young student journalists,” Schrier said. “If all journalists were as transparent, accountable and open as they demand of everyone they cover, they would be more trusted.”

from a 2010 Gridiron West advert in the PSBJ

Gridiron West Dinner. The WNC held 15 consecutive Gridiron West Dinners, an annual  “roast and toast” of media, political, business and community leaders. The first event, in 1999, honored four veteran journalists (Dick Larsen, Shelby Scates, Mike Layton and Adele Ferguson). Subsequent dinners honored local columnist Emmett Watson, TV Anchorwomen (Jean Enersen, Kathi Goertzen, Susan Hutchison), former Governors (Al Rosellini, Dan Evans, John Spellman, Booth Gardner, Mike Lowry); Jennifer Dunn & Gary Locke, John & Jim Ellis, Bill Gates Sr. & Mimi Gardner Gates, Tom Foley & Slade Gorton, Bill & Jill Ruckelshaus, Kemper Freeman Jr., former Seattle Mayors (Wes Uhlman, Charley Royer, Norm Rice, Paul Schell & Greg Nickels), Suzie Burke, Dale Chihuly, and Norm Dicks & Christine Gregoire. The last Gridiron “roasted and toasted” David Horsey and Patti Payne on Nov. 8, 2013. All are available on TVW’s Archives.

The WNC office above the Pyramid Alehouse in Seattle will close on May 31. The Washington Journalism Education Association (WJEA), which has shared office space with the WNC, will relocate. Hamer and Schrier will continue to promote the TAO of Journalism among students and other journalists worldwide. Hamer plans to consult, speak, write, blog and possibly teach to promote media ethics.

The WNC’s “archives,” including records of 10 public complaint hearings since 1999, 20-plus public forums on media performance, and albums/videos of 15 Gridiron West Dinners, will be preserved for posterity. Board Chair Suzie Burke has offered space for a WNC exhibit at History House in Fremont.

Hamer added: “Thanks to ALL who have supported the WNC so loyally and generously over the past 15 years. I deeply appreciated and greatly valued your advice, counsel, feedback, suggestions — and donations! Each of you has contributed tremendously, as your time and resources allowed. I owe you a huge debt of gratitude for your service and friendship.”

Bill Gates Sr., John Hamer, and Kathy Schrier

Hamer said he would especially like to thank Bill Gates Sr., who was one of the original members of the News Council Board and donated more than $500,000 since 1998: “I can’t thank Bill Sr. enough. We wouldn’t be here without him – and he never missed a meeting when he was on the Board.” Hamer also thanked Jim Ellis of the WNC’s Founding Board, who was among the first to endorse the group’s formation. Other founders were Patsy Collins, Bill Gerberding, Ken Hatch, Jeannette Hayner, Dennis Heck, Pat Herbold, Ron Judd, Mike Lowry, Stan McNaughton, Charles Royer and Bill Ruckelshaus. An organizing committee included Mariana Parks, Bill Baldwin, Sandy Schoolfield, Chuck Nordhoff, Heidi Kelly, and Joel Horn. “All of their support was invaluable.” He also saluted his WNC Board Members Emeritus, past officers, and Hearings Board Chairs Bob Utter, Karen Seinfeld and Gerry Alexander, who presided at the public hearings. “And my very special thanks to Brian Glanz and Jacob Caggiano, who did such fabulous work on our websites and with social media,” Hamer said.

Brian Glanz, John Hamer, and Jacob Caggiano of the WNC

Hamer also thanked members of “100 Friends of the WNC,” who each donated $1,000 annually, plus foundations and corporations that sponsored tables at the Gridiron West Dinner, including the Gates Foundation, Horvitz Foundation, Kemper Development, Chihuly Studio, Boeing, Microsoft, Premera, Wells Fargo, PEMCO, Lynden, Wells Fargo, Fremont Dock, Clear Channel Outdoor and Puget Sound Business Journal, plus many other individuals and companies.

Finally, Hamer said: “I’ll be in the office above the Pyramid Alehouse much of April and May, packing up 15 years of records and memorabilia. Call if you’d like to come by for lunch or a beer. A ‘refirement’ party will be held on Monday, May 19, from 5-8 pm at the Pyramid Alehouse. We’ll have good food, free beer and an ‘open mic roast’ of me. Hope to see you there.”

CONTACT: John Hamer, WNC President and Executive Director
Phone: 206.262.9793 office OR 206.910.5270 cell
Email: jhamer@wanewscouncil.org

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On the Organization of News Ombudsmen 2013 Annual Meeting

“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!

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Our Advice for Britain’s new National Press Regulator

In the wake of recent scandals, Britain’s politicians want to regulate the country’s naughty media. Our own Washington News Council might make a better model.

England may soon have its own NPR: the “National Press Regulator.” Sound scary? It is.

The Economist calls it a “rotten deal,” arguing that the British NPR would be “set up by a royal charter, underpinned by statute, and monitored by a new recognising body, whose first set of members will be appointed by yet another committee, itself partly government-appointed …[N]ewspapers that fail to sign up will be subject to harsh exemplary damages.”

Can you imagine the outrage if anyone proposed that in the United States?

Read the rest of this piece from April, 2013, at Crosscut.com.

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Gridiron West: A Not-to-be-Missed Bipartisan Post-Election Bash

Imagine it’s a few days after Election Day. Your candidate(s) won! You had a big victory party to celebrate. Now what?

Well, one thing you can’t wait to do is see your friends whose candidate(s) lost, right? Come on, admit it: You know you do.

You’ll give them a big grin, slap them on the back and say, “Hey, maybe next time!” You long to rub it in a little, right?

Oh, you’ll pretend to be sympathetic, and say things like, “Well, it was a close race. Two strong candidates. Could’ve gone either way!”

But inside you’re gleeful, feeling triumphant, savoring the win – in a restrained and understated way, of course.

Click Here for Tickets to the Gridiron West Dinner :: A Can't-Miss Post-Election Bash!

Click above for details and tickets!

This is why God invented passive-aggressiveness. You can make nice while your inner dialogue does the gloating: “Yessss! We won! You’re toast! Bwahahahahahahahahaha!”

You lust to see the pained looks on their faces, a wan smile that turns into a pathetic grimace as they avert their eyes and try to change the subject to, like, the weather or something. Sweet.

Am I right? You know I am. That’s your deep-down dream, whether you voted for Obama or Romney, Cantwell or Baumgartner, Inslee or McKenna, Del Bene or Koster, Owens or Finkbeiner, Dunn or Ferguson, Drew or Wyman, Kelley or Watkins, McCloud or Sanders.

Whoever prevails in these tough, hard-fought, deeply felt races, there’ll be winners and losers – feeling happy or crappy, cheerful or tearful, woo-hooing or boo-hooing.

So…what if you could come to a big bipartisan post-election bash, where you could tweak your friends and trash their losing candidates – in an oh-so-compassionate manner, of course. After all, this is Seattle, not Chicago.

You could share a bottle or two of wine with them, and hope they might even tear up a bit. Then you’d console them magnanimously, put your arm around their shoulders, hand them a hankie and feel a thrill run up your leg.

After a few drinks you might even concede that the pendulum swings back and forth in a democracy — the worst form of government except for all the others, as Churchill said. Be the bigger person. Let your friends save a little face. You’ll feel even better about yourself.

Well, this is your lucky day: You’re invited to a big post-election bash where you can do all of the above, and more!

The Washington News Council’s 14th Annual Gridiron West Dinner will be held on Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Washington State Convention Center. This historically schizophrenic, inspiring/depressing, invigorating/eviscerating event will bring together hundreds of folks from all sides of the political divide.

The program will “toast and roast” (ambiguity intended) Governor Christine Gregoire and Congressman Norm Dicks. Both are stepping down at the end of their terms, so it’s the perfect opportunity to cheer and/or jeer two lame ducks. “Toasters/roasters” include Republicans Slade Gorton and Ralph Munro, Democrats Maria Cantwell and Brad Smith, and several others from both parties.

A snap from Gridiron West Dinner 2011

All candidates for statewide offices have been invited, and some of them may actually show up – especially the winners!

But here’s the hitch: You have to bet on the come, by getting your tickets or reserving a table BEFORE Election Day. Yes, you must commit to being there even if you don’t know whether you’ll be cheering or crying. Deadline: Monday, Nov. 5.

Confident that your side will win? Man up! Woman up!

Go to http://wanewscouncil.org/gridiron and click through to our “cart” to buy tickets or a table of 10. The room is filling up fast – and so far it’s half Democrats, half Republicans.

A big bipartisan crowd, where we can all “just get along” — at least for one night. Civility, toleration, peace, love and understanding will prevail – on the surface, anyway. Underneath, total war. Is this a great country, or what?

Oh, by the way, it’s Veterans Day, so we’ll honor all the veterans who fought for our right to fight all night, disagree without being (too) disagreeable, bury the hatchet (figuratively speaking), and feel good about our messy, feisty, sloppy, scrappy democracy, where no argument is ever really settled.

Got courage? Got guts? Got cojones/ovaries? Get tix! See you there.

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Thank you Kathi Goertzen

The late Kathi Goertzen - from KOMO newsThe Washington News Council sends our deepest sympathies to the family of Kathi Goertzen, KOMO 4 anchor, and to all our friends and colleagues at the station. On Nov. 11, 2001, the WNC ‘toasted and roasted’ Kathi, along with Jean Enersen and Susan Hutchison, at our 3rd annual Gridiron West Dinner. The evening included a tribute from Peter Jennings of ABC News, an introduction by Dan Lewis, some hilarious outtakes, a funny “Anchorettes” video from Patty Murray, a goofy performance by Ralph Munro, and a stand-up comedy routine by Rob McKenna and Ron Sims. It was quite a show!

You may watch the event below, or order a copy on TVW’s website:

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Mike Wallace asked: Who will watch the watchdogs?

Mike Wallace changed my life.

I never actually met him, but he had a huge influence on my career. Here’s how:

Back in the 1990s, I co-edited a media-critique newsletter called CounterPoint  (motto: “Who Will Watch the Watchdogs?”) and co-wrote a column that ran in Seattle Weekly and Eastsideweek called “Watchdogs” (motto: “Woof!”).

Barking at journalists, snapping at their heels and biting them in the butt now and then was lots of fun, but it was easy for them to ignore. Or pretend to ignore; most of them read every word we wrote to see if they were mentioned.

But one day a friend asked me if I had seen a “60 Minutes” segment by Mike Wallace that had aired on Dec. 8, 1996. I hadn’t, but my friend loaned me a videotape.

The piece, called “You Arrogant Journalists,” was about the Minnesota News Council, which was founded in 1970. Wallace began:

“It seems hardly a day goes by without someone writing or phoning to tell us, ‘You arrogant journalists, you look down everyone else’s throat, but you cry foul when anyone wants to look down yours.’ A lot of Americans apparently think journalists are less believable than they used to be and smug and hostile when they’re criticized.”

Wallace said the council “thinks they can help reporters begin to regain the public’s trust” by giving the public “a way to complain about news reports they find troubling.”

The “60 Minutes” report focused on a complaint from Northwest Airlines against WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis. The WCCO story reported on safety violations at Northwest, alleging that “hundreds of passengers were at risk.” It included ominous graphics and footage that strongly suggested Northwest was unsafe to fly.

However, Northwest contended that most of their problems were relatively minor and their safety record was actually better than other major airlines. They filed a complaint with the news council.

After listening to both sides in a two-hour hearing, the council voted 19-2 to uphold the complaint, concluding that WCCO had painted a distorted and untruthful picture. As Wallace put it, “To WCCO, the council’s vote was a kick in the teeth.”

The council’s executive director, Gary Gilson (a former TV newsman), told Wallace: “The station went overboard by adding dramatic graphics that made the safety problems seem more frightening than was justified.…That stuff distorted the story.”

When Wallace asked what was the penalty to WCCO, Gilson replied: “If the public agrees with the news council, then WCCO suffers from public humiliation. It gets them to think harder about what to do the next time.”

Wallace concluded: “In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I am a public supporter of state news councils and I believe there should be a national news council, though many of my colleagues disagree with me.”

Watching that video inspired me to help start the Washington News Council – more an “outside ombudsman” than aggressive watchdog. We opened our doors in the fall of 1998 with the help of a stellar and bipartisan Founding Board, including Jim Ellis, Charley Royer, Bill Ruckelshaus, Patsy Collins, Mike Lowry, Jeannette Hayner and several others. Bill Gates Sr. joined the Board and gave us a generous start-up grant. My first board chair was R.Y. Woodhouse, then head of the Seattle Urban League.

We now have a long track record of hearing complaints against media outlets in this state from those who feel they have been damaged by inaccurate, unfair or biased stories about them – including complaints against KIRO7 TV, the CBS affiliate in Seattle, and most recently, against KUOW 94.9, the NPR station here.

Our process is no panacea, but it provides some recourse to those who feel they have nowhere else to turn if they’ve been the victims of media malpractice.

Of course, there is great irony in the fact that Mike Wallace, a champion of tough investigative journalism, endorsed news councils to provide media oversight and public accountability. After all, some of the complaints we have received over the past 14 years involved ambush interviews, hidden cameras, one-sided stories and the kind of “gotcha” journalism that “60 Minutes” pioneered.

But if it hadn’t been for Wallace and his “60 Minutes” team, the Washington News Council might not exist. To my journalist friends who grumble about the WNC, I just say: Blame Mike Wallace!

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Are newspapers sexy?

Sexy Newspaper

Photo by liquene on Flickr

The Newspaper Association of America recently unveiled a new advertising campaign: “Smart is the New Sexy.

I wrote a snarky blog about it, asking “Whose idea was this?”

But I’m having second thoughts. I just read the Valentine’s Day issue of my daily newspaper, The Seattle Times. Yikes! This paper is smokin’.

Take Page One: There’s a five-column photo of Gov. Chris Gregoire after signing a bill to legalize gay marriage. She’s surrounded by a pumped-up group of legislators clapping ecstatically. Just below is a shot of several young female patrons of the Wild Rose, a well-known lesbian bar.

Anchoring the page is a six-column ad from a local drug store: “Sweep her off her feet!” It features a bottle of champagne, a plus sign, a dozen red roses, an equals sign, and then a beaming couple lying in bed in their pajamas. Some formula!

Page 4 carries an eye-catching story about how Valentine’s Day has become a big deal in Baghdad. A photo shows two Iraqi women shopping in the “central holy city” of Karbala. One holds a heart-shaped pillow that says “love,” just below a big balloon saying “My heart beats.” This is “the nation’s most amorous celebration of the holiday ever,” the story declares. Talk about a surge!

Half of Page 5 is a Starbucks ad showing a laughing young woman clutching her caffe mocha, piled high with whipped cream. The drink “has become a bit of an obsession,” the ad says: “Warm up” with one.

Page 6 and 7 feature jumps (no pun intended) of stories on the gay-marriage bill, with a charming photo of two long-time women partners who now plan to get married. Describing how they met, one recalls: “I walked in and saw her standing there…and it was as if someone plugged her in cause she lit up like a Christmas tree.”

An ad at the bottom of the page states “Valentine’s Day is for lovers.” It adds in small print: “but not if you have a problem with erectile dysfunction or premature issues.” It offers a “FREE Office Visit” including a “test dose of medication” to show how it works. From the smiles on the couple’s faces, it must have.

The local-news section front has a four-column photo of “senior women” at a retirement community. They are all holding up red hearts while rehearsing a musical performance of “Whatever Lola Wants.” Hubba-hubba!

The features page (B3) has two Cupid drawings with Paul McCartney’s face on one and Catherine Russell’s on the other, and a review of their new CDs. Both look a little lost. Maybe they should read a book that’s reviewed on the same page: “The Freud Files.” Or go watch a movie just out on DVD: “The Rum Diary” with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – she pictured in a low-cut strapless dress.

The Comics & Puzzles pages are also pretty hot. Nearly half the comic strips have a Valentine’s theme. The word Jumble solution: “His Valentine’s Day lunch” was a “Hearty Meal.” The advice column offers “’Tried and True advice’ for a happy marriage.”

Even the Horoscopes are sexy. Mine (Aries): “A productive morning leaves space for a romantic evening; make what you will of it.” My wife’s (Scorpio): “Your capacity to listen makes you more alluring.”

The Sports section has an inside story about women coaching high-school boys’ swimming teams, with an intriguing photo of a woman coach helping one of her swimmers out of the pool. The lithe young boys in their swimsuits certainly could be considered sexy – as could a young woman (the coach’s daughter) sitting at poolside.

Maybe smart isn’t the new sexy, but if newspapers had this much steamy stuff in their pages every day, would their circulation go up along with readers’ temperatures? At long last, a sustainable business model!

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Critics are wrong about Dale Chihuly’s fabulous glass art

David Brewster’s recent little blog on Crosscut.com, “Chihuly Conquers Boston” (Aug. 8) caught my eye because I saw the Chihuly exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in May. My wife and I spent several hours there. We both thought it was fabulous.

Brewster said the exhibit “drew large numbers…and mixed critical reviews.” He cited two such reviews, one from The Wall Street Journal and one from The Boston Globe. Both were snarky and supercilious. The Globe’s Sebastian Smee, Brewster rightly noted, was “condescending.” Smee called Chihuly’s works “tasteless.” Well, critics must be critical. That’s what they get paid to do.

However, the huge crowds (360,000 plus) that the exhibit attracted in Boston tend to prove the critics wrong. So do the big attendance numbers at the current “Dale Chihuly’s Northwest” exhibit at Tacoma Art Museum, which runs through Sept. 25. I’ve seen that too, and it’s terrific.

The self-anointed cognoscenti may pooh-pooh Chihuly, perhaps to reassure themselves of their own elite sensibilities. But most people genuinely like Chihuly’s extraordinary creations – and have for decades now. The man has quite simply revolutionized the glass art medium and is, justifiably, renowned worldwide.

By the way, Brewster should have disclosed the fact that he opposed the new Chihuly exhibit at Seattle Center, which will open in April 2012, and even testified against it last year.

Full disclosure: My organization, the Washington News Council, will “roast and toast” Chihuly at our 13th annual Gridiron West Dinner on December 15 at Fremont Studios. We have been working closely with the Chihuly team on plans for the event. It’s going to be lots of fun. We’ll do songs, comedy, videos, a slideshow and affectionate “toasts” of Dale.

Our confirmed “toasters” so far include Sally Bagshaw, John Buchanan (who heads the San Francisco Art Museum), Leslie Chihuly, Mimi Gardner Gates and Tom Skerritt. We have invited Jeff Bridges, Jeff Brotman and Quincy Jones, who are friends of Dale’s and collectors of his work. Pretty “tasteless” bunch, huh?

Tickets and tables for the event are going fast, and we’re certain to sell out.

Between now and then, several other events are also scheduled to honor Chihuly and his legacy in this region. Here’s a partial list:

Aug. 14 – Pilchuck Glass School 40th Anniversary Reunion, 12-5 pm, Stanwood (Chihuly was one of Pilchuck’s co-founders. Reservations required.)

Sept. 15 – Tacoma Art Museum “Inspired by Chihuly,” 5-8 pm, Tacoma Art Museum (Chihuly was born in Tacoma and has maintained close ties to TAM.)

Sept. 18 – “Tacoma Celebrates Dale Chihuly,” 3 pm, UW Tacoma’s Philip Hall (Chihuly will turn 70 on Sept. 20.)

Sept. 25 – “Chihuly’s Colleagues & Collaborators,” 1 pm, Tacoma Art Museum (Tributes from glass artists who worked with him.)

Oct. 12-15 – Pilchuck Glass School Auction Tour, Stanwood (Four days of events to showcase Pilchuck artists and their work.)

Oct. 14 – Pilchuck Glass School Annual Auction, 5 pm, The Westin Hotel, Seattle (The 33rd auction to support Pilchuck’s educational programs. Reservations required.)

Oct. 15 – Tacoma Art Museum’s “GALA Deconstructed” Dinner, 6 pm, TAM (Limited seating; reservations required.)

For the vast majority who are delighted and inspired by Chihuly’s work, these all might be of interest. Ignore the critics. They’ve got lousy taste.

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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.

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