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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why So Few Female Ombuds?

One of the pleasures of this job is that I get to speak to up and coming journalism students around the world.

Their optimism and their clarity about journalism's strengths, gaps and its ability to make a difference can be truly inspiring.

Recently I spent some time with undergraduates at the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

I fielded a lot of good questions such as how ombudsmen can possibly operate in an environment of heightened competition among media and in this time of deepening public skepticism and hostility? Tough questions with no easy answers.

One question today was particularly pointed:

Why are there so few women ombudsmen? asked one (male) student.

It's true that if you go to the website of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, the preponderance are male.

There may be many factors that contribute to this situation: while I found being on ombudsman a fascinating place to be (for a while), many people in the news organizations (male and female) told me that they didn't know how I could stand the pressures: taking shots from the public and the newsroom; enduring personal abuse; being caught between the defensiveness of the journalistic culture and the offensive demands of the public. It is true it can be wearing.

I don't think that being a male is a prerequisite for taking on the job. On the contrary, many ombuds were and are women who proved themselves to be just as tough and tough minded as any one had to be in that role.

But to respond to the student, I think the really answer lies in the demographics of newsrooms.

Not today's newsrooms. But the newsrooms of the 1970s and 1980s.

Most ombudsmen happen to be senior (aka older) journalists. That means they entered the workplace when men predominated in news organizations. As the work force ages, more women should achieve positions of authority in management and as ombudsmen/women.

If news organizations decide to appoint ombudsmen who are younger, there would quickly be more females among them.

And that is what we are seeing now - more women who have proven their journalistic worth, being appointed to those roles in their media organizations.

I would look forward to that, because it might change the dynamics of how the public interacts with the media. The red meat critics that I had to deal with might just be a bit more civil if a woman answered the phone and said: "Office of the Ombuds. Ombuds X speaking."

1 comment:

  1. Makes sense to me, Jeffrey. When I wrote my masters thesis "On the Origin and Development of the American Newspaper Ombudsman" back in the medieval period (1979), the whole phenomenon was only 12 years old (1967/ Louisville Courier-Journal) and the number of women in the newspaper biz then was very, very small.

    I served as an ombudsman/readers' rep for the college/community paper in State College, PA (Penn State) and I don't know what seemed stranger to the readers and staff--me as a woman or me as a reader's rep.

    Today, there are fewer ombuds overall due to staff cuts, and it is often expected to be an "exit to retirement" job.