Ombudsmen Slice and Dice Media, Face Cuts

By Casey Bukro

The thing I like about news ombudsmen is they do to journalists what journalists do to everyone else.

Journalists hold everyone accountable; ombudsmen hold journalists accountable. It’s not a popular job, considering that their ranks grow thinner.

A report for New York’s Capital website points out that “the trend line is pointing down” because “the position is often the first to go when news executives are trying to trim their budgets.”

Associate editor Jeremy Barr quotes Jeffrey Dvorkin, a University of Toronto journalism professor, who estimates that about 20 news ombudsman exist today in the United States. Meanwhile, the job is growing in other countries, Dvorkin contends, because they value independent journalism “in a way that I think is being lost in the U.S.”

A pity.

It’s interesting to see how a good ombudsman works, sometimes finding fault with the way a news organization works, sometimes defending it.

Toledo Blade ombudsman Jack Lessenberry is a good example. In a recent column, Lessenberry tackled questions from readers about why The Blade presents corrections without stating the original error, whether the placement of a political cartoon in the text of an opinion column gave the wrong impression and why The Blade’s ink is smudging a reader’s hands.

Lessenberry dutifully investigates each question and reports back to the reader in a mild-mannered, patient way, admitting the paper is being printed with a different ink but “it also comes off easily when you wash your hands.”

An ombudsman is a modern King Solomon, famous and feared for his divine gift of wisdom. To decide which of two women who claimed to be the mother of an infant was telling the truth, Solomon proposed cutting the infant in half, so each woman could have a share.

One woman thought that was a good idea. The other, horrified, said she wanted the infant to live, and offered to surrender the child. The king declared that the woman who wanted the infant to live was the true mother, and awarded her the baby. The story is more complicated, but that’s the gist.

No ombudsman that I know has ever been confronted with such a challenge. Instead of cutting a problem neatly in half, they are more likely to slice and dice it, as does Lessenberry.

An ombudsman must look at a problem from many angles and perspectives, then come to a decision that might criticize his own organization. By comparison, King Solomon’s job might have been less stressful.

There is an existential quality in the way the job seems to be fading.

The exit of Patrick Pexton as the Washington Post’s last ombudsman in March 2013 brought some attention to the role of ombudsman. Pexton was replaced by a reader representative, a role considered less probing and critical.

Pexton offered insight to the job as he was leaving, pointing out that the No. 1 topic of complaint to the ombudsman during his term was the Post’s online comment system.

“About 10 percent of those complaints were about its functionality, which the Post has improved,” wrote Pexton. “Another 10 percent were from people who feel they were unfairly censored. But the rest were from readers who like the idea of online comments but abhor the hatefulness, name-calling, racism and ideological warfare that are constant features of the Post’s Commenting stream.”

Veiled by anonymity, the posters were just mean and vicious in a way they would not attempt if identified.

Pexton said he originally favored the anonymous nature of those online complaints, but changed his mind. He favored moving away from anonymous responses to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and to sign in via Facebook.

“What turned me,” wrote Pexton, were remarks by a high school football coach “who criticized first lady Michelle Obama’s derriere.”

More laudable, said Pexton, was the second most common type of complaint, from readers he described as “grammar police.” These are “the line-by-line readers who see every grammatical, spelling, punctuation and factual mistake in The Post.” Such criticism can be annoying, “but the grammar police help keep standards high.”

In a sense, these volunteer editors are unofficial ombudsman. They don’t really take the place of someone officially charged with investigating missteps. Yet, that may be where publishing is headed.

A USA Today report quoted Dworkin saying that there are about half as many media ombudsmen working in the U.S. today than a decade ago.

“The public is really hungry for them,” he said. And it does seem odd that while news organizations cut ombudsmen from their staffs, they also try to engage readers and viewers via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

It appears they think social media can take the place of ombudsmen. Wonder what wise old King Solomon would say about that?

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