Ombudsman: ‘Loneliest Job in the Newsroom’

Kathy English
Kathy English, Toronto Star public editor (Toronto Star photo by Lucas Oleniuk)

By Casey Bukro

I’m a sucker for stories about news ombudsmen, or public editors or readers representatives, even though they are branded these days. I can’t help myself. It’s a compulsion, an addiction.

Think about it: An ombudsman might walk up to the top boss and tell him he’s wrong. She might pick through the details of a complicated story, then defend a reporter for doing a thankless, difficult or even dangerous job, or discover that a reporter did not go far enough to find the truth, and then say so publicly.

It’s almost heroic.

I suppose I also admire ombudsmen because what they do is so idealistic: speaking up without fear or favor, letting the chips fall where they may.

Maybe that’s why there are only about 20 of them working at American news outlets today, according to a Politico article, “The State of the Ombudsman in 2015.” That’s about half as many as a decade ago, according to USA Today.

Still, ombudsmen in the U.S. and elsewhere trudge on.

Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star in Canada, recently wrote an article titled, “So what does the public editor do?” Readers had asked her to explain her job, which she’s done for eight years.

English explained she reports directly to the publisher as part of a strong commitment to accountability and transparency.

“Being outside the newsroom gives the public editor essential latitude to weigh in on public complaints and, when called for, make clear to our audiences how newsroom journalists fall short of the Star’s journalistic standards,” English wrote. “Being outside the newsroom also means that the public editor has no say in newsroom decision-making.”

The Star is one of two Canadian newspapers with ombudsmen. The other is The Globe and Mail. CBC and Radio-Canada also have ombudsmen.

English referred to the Organization of News Ombudsmen and its handbook, which refers to the task as “the loneliest job in the newsroom.”

Eight years of experience, wrote English, proves “we can never please everyone.”

National Public Radio also recently posted “How we Work: A Week in the Ombudsman’s Office,” also in response to questions.

“The ombudsman’s office serves primarily as a liaison between the newsroom and listeners, to make the newsroom leaders aware of how listeners feel and help listeners understand why the newsroom makes the decisions it does,” said ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen.

The NPR ombudsman has no management authority, however, “the newsroom can take my suggestions (or not). I don’t speak for the newsroom or for NPR – just for myself – and I don’t have the power to print a correction or set policy,” Jensen wrote.

Jack Lessenberry, ombudsman of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, recently pointed out that sometimes he has to side with a newspaper’s owners and editor, since they decide policy.

A reader wanted to know why The Blade denied the “Dr.” title to everyone except holders of medical and veterinary degrees. Lessenberry asked The Blade’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block, if it was time to change the newspaper’s policy. No, said Block. The policy is consistent and does not need to be changed.

“As far as your ombudsman is concerned,” wrote Lessenberry, “style decisions are up to the newspaper’s owners and editors. There is no fairness issue involved as long as the policy is consistent and consistently applied.”

In another example, the Columbia Journalism Review points to concerns raised by The New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, about a front page story that cast Hillary Clinton as the subject of a criminal investigation, which turned out to be false. First The Times revised the story, but did not issue a correction until 12 hours later. That did not meet Sullivan’s standards.

“When mistakes happen, the Times Needs to be more transparent with readers about what is going on,” she wrote. “Just revising the story, and figuring out the corrections later, doesn’t cut it.”

The ombudsman trade got more than the usual passing glance in 2013 when the Washington Post decided to replace its ombudsmen with a reader representative.

Financial planner and blogger Larry M. Elkin objected.

“I liked things better when the ombudsman was the reader’s representative,” wrote Elkin. “What sounds like just a change in title, substituting a more readily recognized job description for an obscure bit of jargon, is really something more. It is a mark of how the commitment of American newsrooms to impartial reporting is fading.”

The rise of the newspaper ombudsman, beginning in the late 1960s, “coincided with the golden age of American newspaper journalism in the 1970s,” wrote Elkin. He, like others, believed that the job was being watered down.

It’s understandable why ombudsmen are vulnerable as news organizations cut staff in a punishing era of digital information, wrote American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder in 2013.

“But it’s a big mistake to look upon the position as a frill,” Rieder wrote. “The credibility of the news media is low. Mistrust on the part of the public is high. Having someone dedicated to listening to readers or listeners or viewers and dealing with their concerns can be a major plus.”

And it could be a step toward getting back to the idealism mentioned earlier. Idealism often accounts for the reason journalists get into the business in the first place. In this raging age of digital communication, that idealism gets lost. Let’s find it again.

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