An Ombudsman’s Dilemma

By Casey Bukro

See how the Toledo Blade’s ombudsman handles a reader’s complaint that the newspaper’s president and general manager also serves as chairman of the University of Toledo’s board of trustees.

The reader calls that a conflict of interest. The ombudsman says it’s not because the paper’s president operates on the business side of the newspaper, not the news side.

The reader correctly wondered how the newspaper can independently cover university activities when its president is head of the university’s board, especially when the university is in the process of selecting a new president.

AdviceLine periodically gets complaints about cases like this where top news officials serve on local civic organizations. The defense often is that the media official is performing a civic duty.

The Blade’s ombudsman cites the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics in his president’s defense, but does not mention that the code warns against conflicts of interest, “real or perceived.”

Notice that in the Toledo case the reader is not convinced that the president’s involvement with the university is innocent and free of potential duplicity. That’s probably a typical reaction.

Civic organizations usually invite media officials to serve on their boards in hopes of publicity. The public knows that.

Given the threat to media credibility, this long-time practice should be abandoned. It’s from another era, before the changes now transforming journalism.

Especially lately, AdviceLine is getting more complaints from reporters about publishers and editors dictating news coverage favoring advertisers, in the pursuit of revenue.

In the real world, the argument that publishers or other top media managers operate strictly on the business side and do not influence the news side is a bit misleading. The boss, after all, is the boss, and he or she knows it. That can lead to a few “suggestions” from the top.

But it’s always interesting to see how an ombudsman defends the actions of his boss. You can decide how convincing he was.

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