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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Modern News Ombudsman: A User's Guide

(This is an excerpt from the soon to be published Handbook for News Ombudsmen. Details on how to obtain your copy will be available on the ONO website

INTRODUCTION: What is a news ombudsman?                  

         The loneliest job in the newsroom
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 being the grumpy 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?

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 someone has been hired to handle the traffic and catch the flak.

And the public might also see the creation of an ombudsman as a tacit admission that the newspaper, website or broadcaster is admitting that it is a flawed enterprise.

While some of these assumptions may on occasion, 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 are occasionally susceptible. It is the notion that inside the newsroom, whatever happens must be for the best, in this best of all possible media. And that anyone who says otherwise, must be mistaken, or an outsider who can’t or won’t understand how well-intentioned the organization really is.

A news ombudsman is not there to confirm the worst suspicions of the public, neither to placate management, nor to support the newsroom.

An ombudsman is there to act as a counterweight or antidote to the natural assumptions of any organization that everything that happens is usually for a good reason or is done for the best of motives.

An ombudsman is there to ask simple questions: “Are you sure?” “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. And if not, why not? 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 handbook is to help new and still active ombudsmen navigate through the cross currents of 21st century media. It is also a guide for students of journalism, as well as interested members of the public. When it comes to high-quality journalism, we are all in this together.

Before we do, that vexing issue of gender and language needs to be acknowledged.

“Ombudsman” may evoke strong feelings from those who feel that the word excludes women from the job. Far from it. The word itself is Scandinavian in origin. Even so, the word may have implications that don’t sit well with our 21st century sensibilities; for some, it may imply that a woman’s place is not in the newsroom. That’s why some prefer a more accurate and neutral phrase such as “readers’ representative,” “public editor” or “readers’ editor.” In the Organization of News Ombudsmen we feel no particular ownership of the word.  There is no sexist or discriminatory implication here.

The important thing is that the job is done and done well, by those of ether gender who occupy the position, whatever it may be called.

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 suggestions. One thing all ombudsmen share: a powerful commitment to making journalism better by letting the public inside the process of information gathering, editing and distribution. There can be no finer goal.

The Organization of News Ombudsmen and the Open Society Institute are supporters of this handbook. Both believe that excellent journalism is predicated on that concept. Given the state of journalism today, being an advocate for that ideal can be tough. But the future of journalism itself and, by extension, democracy itself, are ultimately what is at stake right now.

That is why ombudsmanship matters. 

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