The Organization of News Ombudsmen is meeting in Montreal for its annual conference May 15-18. In advance of that meeting, here is an except from a handbook for ombudsmen that will be published in the next few months:
Why should your media – or any media organization for that matter - have an independent news Ombudsman? And why would anyone want this job, which to the uninitiated, can seem like just being the in-house scold?
From the beginning, there is the idea – inherent in the position itself – that there must be something wrong with the news organization in the first place, or why would management bother to create this position?
This so-called “Ombudsman-as-a-presumption-of-guilt” is something that many journalists, when faced with the prospect of having to deal with an Ombudsman, assume that management is simply fed up with having to deal with complaints, so an Ombudsman has been hired to handle the traffic and catch the flak.
And the public might also be skeptical and see the creation of an ombudsman as a tacit admission that the newspaper or the broadcaster is admitting that it is a flawed enterprise.
While some of these assumptions may on rare occasions, be true, the reality is often quite different: all organizations – media or otherwise – can suffer from an affliction known as “groupthink.” This is the delusionary idea to which all organizations –media or otherwise - are occasionally susceptible to. It is the notion that inside the newsroom, whatever happens is for the best, in this best of all possible media. And that anyone who says otherwise, must be mistaken or an outsider who doesn’t understand how well intentioned the organization really is.
However a news ombudsman is not there to confirm the worst suspicions of the public, or of management or even from that perpetual source of gossip - the newsroom.
In truth, an Ombudsman is there as a counterweight or an antidote to the natural assumptions of any organization, that everything that happens is usually for the best and is done for the best of all possible motives. An Ombudsman is there to ask simple questions, like: “Are you sure?” And “How do you know?”S/he is there to connect the public with the media organization to assure that the content produced is of the highest standards. The readers, listeners and viewers deserve no less.
Those of us who have done the job all have stories about what works and what doesn’t. This book is to help new and still active Ombudsmen navigate through the cross currents of 21st century media organizations. Not every Ombudsman does the job in the same way. But some similar challenges and dilemmas occur. We’ll try to identify the most helpful ones. One thing all ombudsmen share: a powerful commitment to making journalism better by letting the public inside. There can be no finer goal. We in the Organization of News Ombudsmen believe that excellent journalism is predicated on that concept. It can be a tough place to be. But the future of journalism itself and whether journalism can serve democracy itself is ultimately what is at stake.
That is why ombudsmanship matters.