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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Value of Ombudsmen For All To See

If anyone doubted why ombudsmen inside news organizations are essential to democracy, that was dispelled last night at a public meeting held at NPR headquarters in Washington, DC.

The event was hosted by the DC chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the panel included two ombuds - Deborah Howell from the Washington Post and NPR's new ombuds - Alicia Shepard.

The theme of the evening was "Are Ombudsmen Still Useful?", and the meeting was open to the public. About 150 citizens came out to express their concerns about whether journalism was doing what they think it should. Some in attendance were interested journalists, and a few students, but I would guess that almost half were interested and concerned DC citizens. A few came loaded for bear (or ombudsmen).

Poor Deborah Howell. The evening quickly became a forum on the Post - on how well or badly it does in covering the deeply local concerns of the citizens in the room.

Spokespersons for community groups used the occasion to attack the Post's coverage (or lack thereof) on education, school closings, unemployment and the paucity of coverage of the dozens of demonstrations that occur mostly on weekends when the Post's staffing is lower.

If anyone had doubts that race and class are still hot issues in DC politics, they had to be disabused of that notion last night at NPR.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict of course, came up, from a man who said he represents a neutral peace group."We are pro-justice," he said and asked why weekly demonstrations in front of the Israeli embassy aren't reported by the Post each time.

Howell was, in my opinion, magnficent as she patiently explained how newspapering works, how she had written column after column taking the paper to task for ignoring some issues and getting others wrong.

One person asked her point blank, if she has any influence at all, with Post editors. Howell explained that sometimes she does, and sometime she doesn't. An ombudsman, she reminded the questioner, is a moral and ethical journalistic force in the newsroom, but not a managerial one.

Another person complained that the Post got the names wrong of a group of inner city schoolgirls who had worked long and hard on a project, only to see their efforts given short shrift in the Post.

Howell agreed that was disgraceful.

Lisa Shepard from NPR, who knows a lot about the newspaper business herself, felt compelled to jump in to defend the Post, especially since few in the audience seemed interested in asking her any questions about NPR. The focus was all on the Post.

But Howell needed no rescuing. She explained to one persistent advocate for DC voting rights that she never saw any of her emails of complaint. Howell explained that she has to deal with hundred of pieces of junk email daily.

"Junk?", cried the advocate. "You are saying my emails are junk?"

Howell patiently explained to the questioner that her emails may have been inadvertently filtered out by the computer system at the Post. Howell graciously offered her personal email so the aggrieved emailer could contact her directly.

I invited my class from Georgetown University, where I teach a graduate class in Ethics and Journalism to attend, and about seven of them came. They found the experience to be enlightening, even as some questions to Howell were a bit overwrought and clearly designed to elicit more heat than light.

I enjoyed it as well because it reminded me that, for all of the high flown rhetoric about the lofty purposes of journalism, it is local news and local coverage that deeply moves people to leave their homes on a cold Washington night to come to talk about the issues that matter to them.

This is what journalism is supposed to do - deepen the linkages between citizenship and journalism with the ombuds acting as the enabler and agent to that essential part of our democracy.

Well done, Deborah Howell. And don't worry Lisa Shepard - your turn will come. I promise.

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