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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Cyberombudsmen" and the Evolution of Media Accountability

[This has been written as part of a study on the future of media accountability for UNESCO]

Much has been written and spoken about the future of journalism. Can financially challenged news organizations still maintain their traditional role in sustaining democratic values and institutions? What is the value of mainstream media when the Internet seems to be attracting more attention and revenue? And how can media organizations sustain the trust of their readers, listeners and viewers?

Important questions, for which there is no single or easy answer.

Mainstream media are increasingly on the defensive about their continued role at a time when the public is seeking information in other ways and in other places such as the Internet. This has allowed some media critics - usually bloggers - to accuse legacy journalism of increasing irrelevance. And they may be right: circulations and ratings are in decline and media organizations are responding by concentrating on "infotainment," celebrity journalism and crime reporting.

In a constant search for more efficiencies, new organization are rationalizing resources and seeking that elusive younger demographic by beefing up their websites, and abandoning more expensive aspects such as investigative reporting. Many are letting go of their most experienced editors and reporters, including ombudsmen.

We are in an existential crisis for journalism: in effect, can journalism survive without journalists? We seem to be heading in that direction. The same question could be asked of news ombudsmen - those independent, in house critics and mediators between the public and the news organization. So might news organizations rely on outside bloggers
rather than in-house ombudsmen?

The Internet is both the villain and the savior for media organizations: on the one hand, managers are certain that their audiences are being lured away by the siren song of the blogosphere; on the other hand, in-house bloggers and websites are proliferating everywhere. Who will win this tug-of-war?

The value of an ombudsman seems more urgent than ever. Media critics in cyberspace have shown real value in channeling the concerns of the public. But holding media to account and to greater transparency seems more ably done by ombudsmen. Can these two essential elements be joined for the benefit of citizens?

One way would be for ombudsmen to be more open and aware of the criticisms that abound in the blogosphere. Ombudsmen are uniquely situated and qualified to act as that bridge that can connect the public hunger for accountability with the news organization's acknowledgment that they must do a better job.

Ombudsman can and must be in the forefront of this linkage by being advocates for a "Bloggers' Ethics Guide." One of the better ones can be found at

Just like the ethics guides for other legacy media, advocates the following for bloggers:

1. Be honest and fair
       - never plagiarize
       - identify and link whenever possible
       - distinguish between fact and opinion

2. Minimize harm

3. Understand the differences between Private and Public

4. Be accountable
     - admit mistakes and correct them promptly
     - invite dialogue
     - disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, personal agendas, etc.
     - deny special treatment to advertisers, friends, special interests

5. Beware of making deals
     - develop your instincts around information exchanges
     - disclose favors
     - expose unethical practices

As cyberjournalism become more prominent, "legacy" ombudsmen can have a positive role in nurturing ethical behavior. In the process, the sharing of knowledge can only serve to benefit the public who need reliable and transparent information, wherever they seek it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

That's the easy part. Those of us who have worked as ombudsmen inside mainstream media organizations have a good idea of how the job works, or not. When done correctly, it is a demanding task, usually thankless, and one that requires seven day a week attention. 

In retrospect, I think there may have been an inherent passivity. Ombudsmen usually wait for the public to identify an area of concern, before moving to action. But that more leisurely approach is bound to end as the public impatience for change grows. Content in moving to the web, and so must ombudsmen.

Imagine being an ombudsman in cyberspace with its lack of boundaries, deadlines and limitations. A useful analogy would be playing three-dimensional chess where the players may not always anticipate where the next attack might come from.

We need a new institution. Let's call it "cyberombudsmen."

Being a "cyberombudsman" will require new skills because it will demand the same viral approach as the new medium itself requires. That will mean taking a more pro-active role, seeking online the discussion and issues and criticisms that could have an impact on journalism. To borrow a sports analogy, it means playing a lot more "offense" and less on "defense."

This new role will be one where the skills of key word searches, algorithms and a constant awareness of who is blogging will be joined to create this new form of ombudsmanship. In effect, this next generation of "cyberombudsman" will bridge not only traditional media and traditional audiences. He or she will bridge the gap between traditional media and their rapidly proliferating corps of digital and citizen critics.

This means that in order for journalism to fulfill its own critical role as a lynch pin for democratic values, media organizations and ombudsmen need to reassess their roles and relationships - with each other and with the rapidly changing audiences who remain hungry for accountability and integrity.

The credibility of a news organization now rest increasingly on its willingness to admit mistakes and to allow the public to be part of the once mysterious process of news. Citizen journalists feel they have the right to challenge legacy media. Unfortunately some of them, too often attempt this without the knowledge or the ethical capacity to do this effectively.

The old model of the ombudsman as the solitary, experienced and somewhat distant newsroom figure needs to change. The way to make this work is to engage our younger journalistic colleagues who bring new skills and fresh perspectives and who can be the next generation of "cyberombudsmen." Combining their talents with the experience of the seasoned ombudsmen will create this urgently needed agency of digital democracy.


  1. Jeffrey,

    An interesting read. I like the term "cyberombudsmen". I recently wrote a paper and used the term "Internet Ombudsman" and how the web now provides the opportunity for new Ombuds roles as well as offering new entry points and options for established 'real life' Ombuds offices.

    What confuses me from your post is who do you suggest will actually employing the "cyberombudsmen"?

    If their role is to oversee the bloggers and online media sites, where does there legitimacy derive from? What will compel bloggers to adhere to the new “cyberombudsmen” office?


  2. Dear Jeff - All good points. I can only hope that legacy media will expand the definition of the person(s) who are part of the website operations to include this role. Also the people who are now hired as ombudsmen must rethink and redefine their roles and responsibilities to include a broader definition of "accountability." It's something ONO will be discussing when we meet at our annual conference in May. At ONO, we are hoping that bloggers will join us to extend the concept of ombudsmanship.