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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Can Ombudsmen Survive in a Digital Age?

The Organization of News Ombudsmen met last week in Washington, DC in the midst of the most uncertain time for journalism in a generation. The ranks of ONO have been seriously thinned especially by American newspapers, where layoffs have been particularly severe.

Of ONO's 60 or so members, 13 ombudsmen have been dropped by US newspapers. So the mood in Washington was particularly sober.

Sober, but not depressed because amazingly enough, the spread of ombudsmanship outside of North American and UK media continues to grow. Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, India and Australia are all seeing renewed interest in the idea of a news organizations having an independent public agent who can act on behalf of citizens.

While news organizations around the world adopt the ombudsman, the concept remains strong especially in the United States in all public and educational sectors. Only news organizations seem curiously indifferent to the idea. In fact, the list of colleges and universities, hospitals and other public agencies are rapidly hiring ombudsmen both for internal purposes and external relations.

One of the more interesting ideas I heard while in Washington came from two longtime advocates for ombudsmen to be located inside financial institutions. Jon McBride and Jim Hostetler are pushing the idea that any business that accepts a federal government bailout must, as a condition of acceptance, create an ombudsman who can assure the staff and the taxpayers that the money is being well spent. So far, no one in the Obama administration has picked up and run with this idea. But there are some encouraging signs that some in the administration are finally listening.

Many media organizations seem to have a tin ear when it comes to acknowledging the need for public accountability. Many of us at the conference kept wondering why.

Some may be found in the litigious culture of America. Lawyers too often have final say in what can and cannot be printed or broadcast, despite the brilliance of the First Amendment. That powerful disincentive to acknowledge public concerns keeps much of journalism in a defensive crouch.

Yet studies at The Guardian in London demonstrated that once a readers' editor was hired, legal work by the newspaper's general counsel dropped by 30%. This more than paid for the cost of the ombudsman, plus an assistant. Other studies show that the credibility of news organizations rises whenever an ombudsman is hired. Overseas ombudsmen are seen as key elements in maintaining journalistic independence in a self-regulatory environment. In short, government and lobby pressures are minimized when an ombudsman can invoke readers' and viewers' concerns.

ONO has a future, but it remains cloudy. Full disclosure: ONO has asked me to its first executive director to help evangelize the concept. While there is an eager audience for ONO abroad, we will have our work cut out for us in North America as media organizations seek ways to survive.

Ironically, we are now in a time when media criticism has never been more robust. In the meantime, the ombudsmen will continue to defend the interests of the public. And ONO, as an organization will have to seek its future as much in the growing blogosphere as in the legacy media who are struggling to survive.

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