Ethics Scan: Remaining Media Ombudsmen Uphold Standards

By Casey Bukro

Ombudsmen and public editors often are described as a dying breed, yet those who remain clearly take the job seriously.

A 2014 University of Nebraska graduate thesis finds there are about a dozen ombudsmen working now in U.S. news organizations, down from about 40 or 50 earlier in the decade. Internationally, however, the report finds ombudsmen growing in number and popularity.

In these times of job insecurity, ombudsmen seem to be taking more risks than most journalists. But they toil on.

In the U.S., Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, attracted attention for pointing to a conflict of interest Times editors failed to flag or apparently even to notice in an article titled “The Transformers.”

The article profiled five technology entrepreneurs, including Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.

Tipped by readers, Sullivan discovered the article was written by the wife of a major investor in Airbnb, and that the writer was not a NYT staffer. The article appeared in T, the style magazine of the Times, and lauded entrepreneurs “harnessing goodness through technology.”

Sullivan came down hard on her employer in an article titled “Conflict of Interest in T Magazine’s Tech Article.”

Among readers who contacted Sullivan about the article, one wrote, “my question is about an undisclosed conflict” in an article that “reads as uncritical P.R.” for Airbnb without disclosing the relationship between the article’s author and the investor in Airbnb.

“This is a case in which the financial conflict is so clear, and the spousal tie so close, that a disclosure would not have been enough. A different writer altogether would have been a far better idea, and, to my mind, the only right one,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan found that T Magazine failed to live up to the Times’s high journalistic standards. Online, the article carries a disclosure about the conflict.

In South Africa, news24 reported that complaints to the Press Ombudsman faulted the Sunday Times for information it did not report, rather than what it did report about a tax-collecting agency of the South African government.

The Sunday Times published a series of reports on an alleged rogue unit in the agency accused of running a brothel and spying on President Jacob Zuma. Officials accused in the scheme resigned, but told the ombudsman “there is an alternative narrative” that contradicts the Times reports.” A lawyer said the Times had been selective and unbalanced in its reporting.

The Sunday Times of South Africa is a weekly newspaper. The ombudsman is pondering the case.

Here’s a long, scholarly look at the Press Council of South Africa by Dr. Julie Reid.

Despite the brain-twisting nature of the job, others still step up. ESPN recently named James M. Brady, formerly of the Washington Post, as its public editor. In making the announcement, company officials said his goal would be transparency and advocacy in an increasingly multimedia world.

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