Tag Archives: ombudsman

Bill Green, Ombudsman Exemplar, Unsparing on Post’s Failure

 

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Bill Green set the standard for ombudsmen while investigating the Janet Cooke hoax at the Washington Post. (Post photo).

By Casey Bukro

Bill Green, an ombudsman’s ombudsman, was not even sure what the job entailed when he was called on unexpectedly to unravel one of journalism’s most famous ethical failures.

Green was only weeks into the job as Washington Post ombudsman on Sept. 28, 1980, when the Post published “Jimmy’s World,” the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict with “needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”

So compelling and detailed, the front-page story written by 26-year-old reporter Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing on April 13, 1981.

Almost immediately the story about the unnamed boy, and Cooke’s background that appeared when the prize was announced, started falling apart.

The story that followed is especially notable for two reasons. One is that falsehoods often fail sooner or later. The other is that Green, an editor of small-town newspapers who took a year’s sabbatical from Duke University to serve as the Post’s reader advocate, wrote a blistering report on the Post’s editorial lapses that is a model of journalism accountability. It set the standard for ombudsmen.

The nine-part report, starting on the front page and covering four full inside pages, showed the Post’s willingness to confront its flaws and admit them publicly.

Continue reading Bill Green, Ombudsman Exemplar, Unsparing on Post’s Failure

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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?

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.

New Words for Old Ideas

By Casey Bukro

Every so often, some new terminology creeps into journalism lingo. Sometimes it’s a new concept, and sometimes it’s an old concept cloaked in different words.

That could apply to the term “sponsored views.”

In an interview with iMediaEthics, Patrick Pexton, former Washington Post ombudsman, said “sponsored views” are new words for “advertorials, messages provided by advertisers in a way that looks like journalism, or slightly cloaked journalism.”

But, he added emphatically, “it ain’t journalism.” Instead, it’s brand journalism.

This became an issue, as iMediaEthics reported, when the Washington Post launched a Sponsored Media program on June 12, allowing special interest groups to buy advertisements that are presented as comments below op-ed pieces on the Washington Post website.

The move came three months after the Post abandoned its ombudsman position and replaced it with a reader represenatative. Pexton was the newspaper’s last ombudsman, serving from 2011 to 2012.

The move was motivated by finance, said Pexton. ” The Post needs more revenue,” he said.

Since then, Jeffrey Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, bought the Post for $250 million.

One writer wonders if brand journalism and ethics can co-exist?

Let’s Hear It For Ombudsmen

By Casey Bukro

What if the American public lamented the loss of media ombudsmen as much as the loss of sports stars?

When basketball superstar Michael Jordan retired in 1993 from the Chicago Bulls, and again in 1999,  public reaction was strong both times. You’d think he was a member of the family.

Even Sammy Sosa, once described as “the heart and soul of the Chicago Cubs,” provoked an outpouring of some grief when he left the Cubs under a cloud of steroid allegations. A sports writer says Chicago should welcome Sammy back to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.

Contrast that with the departure of Patrick Pexton as the Washington Post’s last ombudsman. There was some short-lived grumbling in the journalism community, but little from the public. And that’s the interesting part. An ombudsman works on behalf of the public, and keeps an eye on their organization’s ethical standards and relationship with its audience.

The Post had employed an ombudsman for the past 43 years. The Post’s ombudsman was replaced by a reader representative, a staff member who will answer questions and respond to complaints.

Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth, in a column to readers, said the ombudsman duties “are as critical today as ever. Yet it is time that the way these duties are performed evolves.”

That word appears often these days when management justifies major changes. The business is “evolving,” as in undergoing change.

You’d think that an ombudsman would be most useful in a time of change, especially in a time of budget-cutting and layoffs — just to be sure the public interest is served, and the quality of journalism is strong.

But the number of ombudsmen at U.S. news organizations declined in the last few years, according to Marc Duvoisin, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen.

What do ombudsmen do? “You hold journalists accountable in much the same way that the media holds the public accountable,” said Duvoisin. They provide “tough, independent oversight.”

It’s the kind of job that tells the public “you matter.”

And it’s the sort of job the public should cheer as much as a home run or a three-point basket from mid-court.