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. We also invite them to nominate and review state and regional stories on our 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.


What I Read – Martha Kongsgaard

Martha Kongsgaard was born and raised in Napa, Calif., to a family of jurists, grape growers and cattle ranchers. Kongsgaard met Peter Goldman in law school, married him in 1988 when they founded the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation. Her community activities currently include participation on the Washington Women’s Foundation, the national board and the executive committees of Earthjustice and IslandWood, where she is a founding board member. She recently chaired several major capital campaigns, including the Cascade Agenda, the expansion of IslandWood and the building of the LEED-certified Community Center at the New High Point. Kongsgaard has served as the president of Philanthropy Northwest and has spoken broadly about philanthropy and the environmental movement to wide and diverse audiences for the past 20 years. She is currently serving as Chair of the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership.  She has three sons and lives in West Seattle with her husband, an environmental public interest lawyer, Peter Goldman.


1. What are your favorite local news outlets? Why?

West Seattle Blog to tell me why the ambulance just drove down my street;

West Seattle Herald to tell me about local schools – their administrators, school board members, and their students’ triumphs and challenges, for Its Police blotter, and to know who Ms. Hi-Yu will be this summer;

The Seattle Times, because it is there;

The Puget Sound Partnership’s press clippings;

Sightline’s aggregation of all things enviro;

PI on line, because i miss the old guard;

Publicola, because they are in the minute, young and opinionated (plus i can hear them on the other side of my wall at work);

The Stranger + Weekly when I can;

Eastside Business Journal if i were awake more hours;

Seattle Magazine, because it comes to me online which tells me who is wearing what (but not why).

Grist, but it’s not really local.


2. What do you consider “must reads” every day? Must watch? Must hear?

The New York Times,

The Seattle Times,

(crossword puzzles in both)

Morning Edition and All things Considered.


Mike Allen’s Playlist

I’ve been known to watch FOX news;

[also read The New Yorker, The New York Times Review of Books;

The New Republic, now and again]

. [Read more...]


What I Read: Ben Huh

By launching the popular I Can Has Cheezburger sites, tech entrepreneur Ben Huh made LOLcats and epic Fails household terms. All around the world, web surfers looking for a quick laugh visit the Cheezburger Network for photos of animals, people doing stupid things, misspelled signs, and other quirky topics.

But that doesn’t mean Huh, a former journalist, spends all of his time searching for comic inspiration. While Huh goes to a Cheezburger site, The Daily What, for pop culture news, he’s also a regular online visitor of news sites ranging from The New York Times to the Seattle tech news site TechFlash. And when he finally gets off the laptop, he can be found picking up a copy of The Economist.

Here’s what Ben Huh is reading:

1. What are your favorite local news outlets? Why?

Seattle P-I. I think their experiment and transformation into an online-only newspaper is fascinating to watch.

2. What do you consider “must reads” every day? Must watch? Must hear?

I read one of our sites, The Daily What (, for all my Internet Culture news. After that, I read the NYT or whomever surfaces via Twitter.

3. Do you consume news through: print, television, radio, laptop, smart phone, ipad, podcasts, other?

Mostly via my iPhone and laptop.

4. Do you use Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or Twitter for news and information?

Twitter is the one I use the most.

5. What online news sites or aggregators do you visit regularly?

I visit Techmeme and TechFlash for my tech biz news. I visit The Daily What for Internet Culture and CNN and NYT for the main stream news.

6. Do you regularly visit any individual blogs for news, analysis and opinion?

No, it really depends on what’s being filtered to me.

7. Have your news consumption habits changed in the last few years? If so, how?

90% of all information is gathered via the Web. The remainder comes through analysis in magazines (The Economist and The Week).

8. Do you read for fun? If so, what? Last novel you read? Non-fiction book?
I don’t read for fun, per se. I do that enough online. :)


Spot.Us brings new journalism model to Seattle

Seattle’s newest media player opens for business today.

Spot.Us, which allows community members to fund civic journalism projects, has expanded to Seattle. Journalist David Cohn started the network in San Francisco in late 2008 and added on a Los Angeles site early this year. He sees Seattle, as a third major west coast city, a natural fit.

“Seattle has a really robust journalism community,” Cohn said.

David Cohn, founder of Spot.Us

David Cohn, founder of Spot.Us

With Spot.Us, readers decide what stories they want to fund. Journalists and news organizations post story proposals with an estimated cost to report and research on the Spot.Us site. Anyone interested in the pitch can pledge a donation. If the pledges reach the necessary amount to fund the story, the money is collected.

“I’m a big believer that the public should be able to participate in journalism,” Cohn said.

So far, two-thirds of stories pitched on Spot.Us have reached their funding goal. [Read more...]


30-something v. 60-something: Blogging across the demographic divide

photo by Jay Cox :: of the week: Do you still subscribe to a printed daily newspaper?

by Washington News Council’s Heidi Dietrich and John Hamer

About Heidi DietrichNO! by Heidi Dietrich, age 30

This winter, for the first time since college, I stopped subscribing to a daily newspaper.

It pained me to phone in the cancellation to the Seattle Times’ circulation department. I kept the subscription going for the past couple of years because I couldn’t stand to contribute to the sad decline of the print newspaper business. It’s a problem that hits close to home. After seven years at the Puget Sound Business Journal, I was laid off last April due to sinking revenue.

It also hurt because I grew up in a newspaper family. My dad worked first for The Columbian in Vancouver, and then for The Seattle Times as I was growing up. The newspaper was a part of daily life. When my sister and I were young, my father read the comics to us at the Sunday breakfast table. Later, we read the articles on our own, vying for the Sunday travel and lifestyle sections. As an adult, I looked forward to spending a few moments with the newspaper and a cup of coffee in the morning.

But in the last few years, the daily newspaper began to change. Thanks to shrinking revenue, the paper itself grew smaller and smaller, with less in-depth features and enterprise reporting. Sections were eliminated or combined. Letters to the editor were relegated to a small part of the page.

And, most importantly, I’d already read the articles. I’d seen the news appear on my Twitter feed and gone to a number of online news sites to get the stories. By the time the paper landed on my doorstep, it was old news. More and more, keeping the subscription felt like a charity case.

I’d held out far longer than most of my peers. Most of my friends never even started subscribing to a daily newspaper, since they could already rely on the Internet after graduating from college. Others subscribed for a time but abandoned the practice as online news became more and more prevalent. Most newspaper subscribers I knew were my parents’ and grandparents’ age.

It’s been a few months since I stopped receiving a newspaper, and it’s interesting to see how my news consumption habits have changed. I read just as much news as before, but less from The Seattle Times, as I’m more apt to link to a variety of news sites. I regularly check national papers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, neighborhood news sites such as MyBallard, and niche web sites such as TechFlash or Cliff Mass’ weather blog. Beyond the serious news sites, I visit blogs on cooking, running, the outdoors, and music.

I’m just as likely to browse an article at 9 p.m. as at the breakfast table. I learned about the Lusty Lady closing and a modern downtown Seattle highrise being torn down yesterday afternoon on Twitter. I find I most often first hear about breaking news via Tweets and Facebook posts, and then link to the actual articles on a news site.

What about you? Are you still subscribing? Leave a comment here.

About John HamerYES! by John Hamer, age 64

This morning, like most mornings, I walked out to the end of my driveway and picked up The Seattle Times.

I laid it out on the kitchen counter, poured myself a cup of coffee, filled a bowl with cereal, sliced a couple of strawberries on top, and began to read my morning newspaper.

Front page. Editorial page. Northwest section. Comics. Sports page. OK, I just skim some of it, but I always find something interesting and worth reading. And I usually glance at the ads, especially the full-page ones.

Am I part of a dying breed? Sometimes I feel that way.

But when I moderated a panel at Seattle Rotary a couple of weeks ago on the future of newspapers, I asked for a show of hands: How many people still read The Seattle Times on paper? Of the 500 Rotarians present, at least three-fourths of them raised their hands. OK, there was a lot of grey hair in this crowd….

Then I asked: How many also read The Seattle Times online? More than half of those in the room raised their hands. (David Boardman, Times executive editor and one of my panelists, began to applaud.)

But as the blog by Heidi Dietrich on this page makes clear, many younger people have stopped subscribing to newspapers and get most of their news online. (BTW, welcome to Heidi, who will now be blogging regularly on this page about media issues and ethics.)

Newspapers used to have a kind of monopoly on the news, but in the Internet era those days are gone. People have many more options for news and information, and the mainstream newspapers are struggling to adjust to the “new news ecosystem.”

We’re clearly in a transition period where some people (like me) still like the touch and feel of newsprint in our hands and others (like Heidi) prefer to get their news electronically, whether on a laptop, Blackberry, Kindle, iPhone or iPad or other device.

Granted, I also read at least a half-dozen other news websites online, however, including some that gather stories from dozens of news sites all over the world. Today, news junkies can mainline online until they virtually overdose on news.

Still, there’s something about having that newspaper with my coffee in the morning. The crinkly feel of newsprint. The faint scent of ink. The full-page color ads.

How about you? Comments welcome! Leave a comment here.


My Brief Encounter with William Safire

I’ve been reading the testimonials to William Safire, the New York Times op-ed columnist and “On Language” writer who died last Sunday.

Two of the better ones are by Maureen Dowd and Howell Raines, who both worked with Safire at The Times for many years.

I never worked with Safire, but I met him once. It was a brief but memorable – at least to me — encounter. [Read more...]


Does journalism matter anymore?

Does journalism matter anymore? What exactly IS journalism these days, anyway? Who is a journalist — and who’s not?

These are some of the questions in the air the “Journalism That Matters” conference at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I’m spending a few days.

The conference was organized by two Seattleites and a former Spokane guy. Stephen Silha, who lives on Vashon Island, started the “JTM” series in 2001, and is former president of the Washington News Council. Peggy Holman, who lives in Bellevue, is a gifted meeting facilitator and “change agent.” And Chris Peck, former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, has been a driving force in the JTM series, and is now editor of The Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

About 100 people are here from all over the country, with a few from elsewhere in the world. All are interested in the future of journalism, but aren’t sure exactly what that future will be. [Read more...]


WNC Meets with Public, Students in Eastern Washington

Washington News Council Executive Director John Hamer and Media Member Chuck
Rehberg spent three days in Spokane and Pullman in April to help raise the
profile of the WNC. They spoke to Valley Rotary in Spokane Valley, then
conducted a student mock news council hearing at Eastern Washington
University’s Spokane campus. They also attended the Edward R. Murrow

Symposium at Washington State University in Pullman, where Hamer was on a
media-ethics panel with Kit Seelye, a political reporter for The New York
Times, and Beth Hindman, a journalism professor at WSU. John Irby, a Media
Member of the WNC who also teaches journalism at WSU, conducted a student
mock news council hearing on campus. Hamer, Irby and Rehberg also attended a
banquet and speech by Peter Jennings of ABC News, who received the
prestigious Murrow Award.

The next day, Hamer and Rehberg attended the Murrow School Advisory Board meeting, and t
hat evening held another mock student news council hearing at Gonzaga University in Spokane.
At all three of the mock hearings, which used the complaint against KIRO-TV by the Washington
Beef and Dairy Products Commissions, the students voted almost exactly the same way as did
the actual News Council at its hearing in June 2003.