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


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Value of a News Ombudsman

After an intense few days in Oxford at the annual general meeting of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, some reflections on the outlook for ONO and for the status of an in-house news ombudsman:

  • The irony of meeting in a place of sweet contemplation and study was not lost on our beleaguered membership. One about-to-be newly appointed newspaper ombudsman was clearly anxious about the prospect of becoming the "complaints department" at his newspaper. As he wrote to me afterward, "(The conference) was (for me) a well dosed mixture of theory and praxis, of formal and informal contacts, of study and pleasure....Thank you again for the support, and like I said: being a news ombudsman may be the most loneliest job in the newsroom, thanks to ONO and its members, I'm not so lonely anymore."

  • The number of ombudsmen continues to grow steadily everywhere. Even in the US after losing 13 members to the recession, four more have returned, supported by their news organization. The executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller has again supported the role of the Public Editor at the paper and has said that the esteemed Clark Hoyt will be replaced when his term expires this summer. While ONO has only one member in France (Véronique Maurrus at Le Monde) there are more than a dozen "médiateurs" in other French newspapers and broadcasters. ONO needs to be more multilingual to encourage them to join. 

    • Next steps: more translations into French, Spanish and Chinese for the website, the creation of a manual on "how to be an ombudsman," more outreach both inside the US newspaper industry and overseas. Much more to do.

    • The powerful influences of the British media was in full-throated display while we were there. The newspapers and broadcasts were obsessed with the sea change to British politics, due to the hung parliament (aka, minority government). Lots of anxiety about how a coalition might govern. It gave a Canadian observer the ability to tell his British colleagues that a minority government actually can function quite well, since it forces all parties to become more moderate in order to survive.

    • Some of the well-known nastiness of the British press was also on display as Simon Hoggart of the Guardian described Ed Miliband, one of the Labour Party stars and potentially its next leader as "bearing a resemblance to a maître d' at an upscale Indian restaurant." Thus Hoggart was able in a snide phrase to draw attention to Miliband's Jewish appearance by invoking both race and class. Will someone complain to the next Readers' Editor at The Guardian? Or did the phrase just appear too clever by half to these North American eyes?

    • The BBC has posted the salaries of its top managers. After one was listed as earning £100,000 p.a., he  was immediately and publicly disinherited by his family. A family spokesman was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying that the executive had brought shame on the family.  

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