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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International Q&A: Are news/press councils still relevant?

Regina Bengco, senior reporter of the Philippine newspaper Malaya Business Insight

From time to time we get get interesting emails from journalists and academics overseas who are interested in the News Council process here in the USA. Since we are the last fully operating News Council standing in America, these questions are especially relevant. It’s also important to note that there is generally stronger support for News Councils in other countries (as I saw during my trip to London where I joined the global roster of News Councils that make up the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe)

Here’s an email from a reporter from the Phillipines working on a fellowship to address the status of press councils, including the one in her home country.

I am Regina Bengco, senior reporter of the Philippine newspaper Malaya Business Insight which is based in Manila. I am currently in Singapore as a participant in the Asia Journalism Fellowship jointly organized by the Nanyang Technological University and Temasek Foundation.

I would like to request for a few minutes of your time to help me in my research project for the Fellowship, which is on the readiness of the press council in the Philippines to handle future challenges on accountability, especially in the technological age.

Since the orientation of the Philippine media is patterned after that of the US, I believe your inputs would be very helpful in my research.

May I ask for your reply to the following short questions:

1. Are press councils still relevant in this age of modern technology, where reply and redress could be obtained instantly through online media?

This is an argument that comes up quite frequently from journalists and journalism organizations who are skeptical about the importance and necessity of Press/News Councils. Indeed, there are certainly more tools available for response and possible recourse, thanks to the continuing digital revolution, and we are glad to see new ways of enabling people to have a voice against inaccuracies. However, do as many people read comments on a news site as read the original stories? Probably not. If someone blogs but there is no one there to read it, does it make a difference? Is a buried email any better than an unopened letter?

No matter how advanced technology becomes, it will always take human beings to transform the message into action, and get others to listen. We still have a role to play in keeping the mission of quality journalism alive, and amplifying the voices of those who are drowned out in the digital tide.

Furthermore, we are undertaking new initiatives that do exactly what critics say should be done, which is to leverage digital technologies in order to help those who have difficulty keeping up with the constantly evolving nature of online media. We have built an online community that allows anyone to post examples of and commentary on media coverage in our region. We are creating an interactive Online Media Guide to help the public navigate the world of digital news and become better equipped to carry out our mission. We are also reaching out to journalists to adopt our TAO of Journalism seal to show their commitment to Transparency, Accountability, and Openness. We have added a NewsTrust.net widget to our site so people can review and rate news stories in our state. We will soon add a MediaBugs widget so they can report errors online and seek a response from the media outlet. We strongly believe that such tools will help engage citizens in constructively critiquing — and thus improving — news and information sources of all kinds.

2. Why is the Washington News Council the only news council left in the US that accepts complaints against the media (please pardon the ignorance)?

This is a difficult question that we get asked a lot. Since the Minnesota News Council closed its doors early this year, we are the only remaining U.S. news council that accepts and reviews complaints. We think that’s too bad: There should be similar organizations in every state. As you may know, there are press councils all around the world in many other countries. For a full list and links to all their sites, visit the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe site (http://aipce.net), which includes several (like us) that are outside Europe. In the U.S., there was a National News Council that existed from 1973-84, and did some excellent work. But it ultimately closed due to opposition from major American news organizations including The New York Times and The Washington Post, which resisted any outside oversight. Many large U.S. newspapers supported the council, but it died for lack of funding. Minnesota’s News Council was created in 1970 by the Minnesota Newspaper Association, and had media funding and support for decades. But when its major media donors began having financial problems, its funding dried up. Also, the MNC did not make the transition to the digital world as well as it might have done. And its last executive director was not an experienced journalist or fund-raiser, although she did her best to keep it alive. We and the MNC tried to start two more news councils a few years ago, with the help of a grant from the Knight Foundation. We gave $75,000 start-up grants to fledgling councils in New England and Southern California. The New England group changed its name to News Forum and decided not to hear complaints after receiving negative reactions from newspaper editors in several New England states. The Forum holds public discussions of media issues, which is fine, but that does not provide true public accountability in the same way that a complaint and hearing process does. The Southern California group did not get off the ground because its initial director left his job as a journalism-school department chair in a dispute with the administration over student press freedom, and he moved to another state. The Honolulu Media Council does not hear complaints, but works for media reform. So we now stand alone.

Another part of the problem has to do with a lack of support from American journalists. We believe that accountability is a two-way street, and those who demand transparency from all other institutions of society deserve outside scrutiny as well. While it’s not as common, some journalists do agree with what we’re doing, and you can find some prominent examples on the testimonials page of our website. As the online news environment continues to shake things up, we’re finding more people in the profession who support our cause, now that anyone can be a journalist regardless of training or experience.

3. There seems to be a problem of lack of funding in some news councils in the world, including the Philippines, how does your organization sustain its operations?

This has been a challenge for all 13 years of the WNC’s existence. We publish a complete list of our supporters on our website. We were very fortunate to win the support of Bill Gates Sr. and the Gates Foundation when we first formed in 1998. He gave us a generous start-up grant that kept us going for the first few years. He made clear that we must diversify our funding, and we did so. Our support comes from a great mix of foundations, individuals, corporations, associations and a few media companies. We believe that a diverse range of funding is important, to show that we are not controlled by any single funder or small group of funders. In our entire history, none of our funders has ever tried to direct or influence our work. If they did, we would decline their funding. We also do not accept any government funds, believing that giving taxpayer dollars to an organization like ours would create the appearance of government oversight of the press. That is a First Amendment violation which we would strongly oppose. We are a 501c3 non-profit organization, so donations to us are tax-deductible. We qualify as a research and education organization that operates in the public interest, like many other U.S. non-profits.

4. How do you remedy the problems of lack of funding and resources, lack of public awareness of the existence of a news council, and lack of commitment from the news organizations, themselves?

We keep our chins up and do the best we can! There is no final “remedy” other than hard work and dogged  persistence. We’ve found through our interactions with the public that many people have issues with the press, and they generally support our mission regardless of their background or political persuasion. The challenge is not so much convincing people to believe in what we do, but rather to understand that our services are just as valuable as any other public-interest organization. We think they may be more valuable, because the news media affect every other segment of society. One of our most generous funders, Bill Gates Sr. gave a recent speech to the Municipal League of King County, who honored us with an award for the 2010 Organization of the Year. Bill’s said it best:

Unlike other nonprofit organizations that help children, or the homeless, or the sick, or the hungry, the News Council’s mission is to ensure that we get fair, accurate and balanced information about everything that goes on in our community and our society. And that’s really important, because the news media are so vital to our democracy. When the media get it right, we all benefit. When they get it wrong, we all suffer.

5. In the absence of a news council, what is the alternative?

Where do people go to get their reputations back if they have been damaged by inaccurate, unfair, incomplete, unprofessional or unethical stories about them? Good question. They have limited options. People can call, write and email news organizations to lodge complaints and seek corrections, clarifications or follow-up stories – but they may not get any real  satisfaction. They can now go online and use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or other social-networking sites to make their complaints more widely known – but many others may not see those posts. They can use some of the new tools such as NewsTrust and MediaBugs to critique stories and seek redress – but those also have far less readership than the original stories. If people are severely damaged, they can file a lawsuit for libel or defamation – but that will cost a lot of money, take several years, and they will likely lose. It’s extremely difficult to win such suits against the news media, which historically have great protections through our legal system. Successful libel suits are rare. News councils provide an alternative to litigation, which in theory both sides should welcome. But again, most media organizations resist this level of public accountability. We believe that when individuals or institutions admit errors, correct them, apologize and show a little humility, they are invariably more respected, trusted and even admired. News councils are no panacea, but they can help bridge the lack of trust between the news media and ordinary people.

We hope this is helpful. Thanks again for writing and please keep in touch. If it’s okay with you, we would really like to publish this exchange on our website to show our readers the kind of questions we get. Please let us know if it’s okay to publish your email and link to your project when it’s complete. It’s great to see activity internationally, especially given the difficulty of the situation here in the US, with the news media struggling in chaotic transition and public accountability systems like ours trying to survive and play a constructive role.

Best,

John Hamer
President and Executive Director

And Jacob Caggiano
Communications Strategist
Washington News Council

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American Journalism Review reviews WNC, so WNC reviews AJR

When I got a phone call from a reporter for American Journalism Review (AJR) saying he was doing a story about news councils, I was both happy and wary. Happy because we don’t get much national coverage, especially from a prestigious publication like AJR. Wary because the reporter said he was a young editorial assistant at the magazine and had never even heard of news councils before his editor asked him to write about them.

But hey, I was a young reporter once and often did stories on subjects I was clueless about, so I gladly consented to an interview. I wanted to make sure he got the story right. I spent a couple of hours on the phone with him explaining how we operated, giving him background information, and referring him to other possible sources.

The story was just posted on AJR’s website. Overall, it’s not bad. Well-written, accurate and reasonably balanced, with several different perspectives and lively quotes. To his credit, the reporter called me back twice to double-check facts and run my quotes by me to make sure that’s what I said. Not enough reporters do that, so kudos to AJR.

The story focuses on the demise of the Minnesota News Council, which closed its doors in January after a 40-year run. The MNC was the model for the Washington News Council when we started in 1998. We essentially adopted their guidelines and procedures, as AJR correctly notes.

The story — also correctly — points out that we are the only surviving news council in this country that still hears formal complaints against the news media.  It states — correctly — that the WNC and the MNC, with funding from the Knight Foundation, held a national contest to start two more news councils in 2005 and awarded start-up grants to groups in New England and California. It notes — correctly — that the New England News Council changed its name to New England News Forum, and decided not to hear public complaints against media outlets, but just to host discussions about news-coverage issues. It states — correctly — that the California effort (actually, just Southern California) “never got off the ground.” (Why? Because its director moved to another state.)

For the most part, the AJR story gets it right. However, there are some points I take issue with.

1. HEADLINE — “Fading Away” is true for the Minnesota council, but our council is as vigorous as ever. We just matched a $100,000 challenge grant from the Gates Foundation, received a $10,000 grant from Microsoft, and were named “Organization of the Year” by the Municipal League of King County. We totally redesigned our website in the past year, with an active blog, a growing online community, a fun “What I Read” series, a NewsTrust.net widget, and other innovative features. We have lots of exciting plans for 2011 and beyond. We are by no means fading away. What’s more, news and press councils are proliferating around the world. For a global list, see the AIPCE’s website.

2. OMISSIONS — The story doesn’t mention the WNC’s latest really cool projects, including our “TAO of Journalism – Transparent, Accountable, Open” Pledge and Seal, which is gaining traction nationwide, and our unprecedented new OMG (Online Media Guide) for Washington state, which is generating great interest. Granted, the reporter’s space was limited, but surely there was room for a sentence or two about these efforts — especially since the story is a “web exclusive.”

3. QUOTES — AJR quotes some folks whose comments are debatable, to say the least. Tony Carideo, the last chairman of the MNC, says that the willing participation of news organizations is “absolutely critical” to the success of any news council. Well, maybe. But in our 13 years of operations, new organizations have never actually appeared at our complaint hearings to answer questions about the stories at issue. In each case, they responded in written statements or online, but were not willing to face the complainants and the council in an open forum. Carideo told AJR that if the news outlets don’t participate, “that doesn’t work.” Oh, really? He should ask King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, whose complaint against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was upheld, or the Washington State Beef Commission and Dairy Products Commission, whose complaint against KIRO7 TV was upheld.  The process clearly worked for them, as it has for others who have come to us when they had no other recourse. The fact that the media organizations didn’t participate in person actually reflects more negatively on them than on us.

4. TECHNOLOGY — AJR quotes Carideo and Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation saying that with the Internet, online feedback to news outlets is much quicker and easier, so there is less need for a complaint-and-hearing process. However, both acknowledge that comments sections are often uncivil and unproductive, and a news council can provide more thoughtful analysis of media ethics and performance. Gary Gilson, former head of the MNC, says it is “absurd” to think that online access provides “any serious measure of accountability to the general public.” He’s absolutely right. People constantly tell me that we are needed now more than ever.

Newton is spot on when he states: “We still need to keep thinking of good ways to keep quality news and information about journalism on the table when complaints are discussed, but it looks like we need digital, real time ways to do it.” That is precisely what the Washington News Council is doing — and further evidence that we are not fading away. Instead, we are actively  reinventing ourselves in the digital media age. Want to help? Join our community. Talk back. Connect. Engage.

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WNC Joins Global Press/News Councils Alliance

The Washington News Council has joined the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe. We’re not in Europe, you say?

True, but neither are several other press councils in AIPCE: Botswana, Israel, Peru, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Zambia, among others. It’s a big tent, this group, and their numbers are growing. (For more details, see What is a Press Council?) [Read more...]

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Who will hold the news media accountable?

OXFORD UNIVERSITY, ENGLAND – Is there a need for media accountability in the chaotic new world of online journalism? If so, who will hold the media accountable?

In-house ombudsmen? Outside news and press councils? Independent media critics?

The “blogosphere”? All of the above?

Those were among the existential questions at the Organization of News Ombudsmen’s annual convention at Oxford University from May 12-15. The gathering was hosted by the Reuters Center for the Study of Journalism, headquartered at Oxford.

I was invited to join a panel: “Press Councils and Ombudsmen: A New Partnership?”

[Read more...]

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