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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, December 12, 2011

Next Generation Ombudsmen: Not Just for Media

The idea of having an independent agent for the public is spreading beyond the world of media - especially these days.

The Occupy Wall Street movement evokes a powerful resonance for Ombudsmen: Can public concerns be heard and acknowledged by corporations, institutions and governments? News Ombudsmen have long believed this to be an essential aspect of responsible journalism.

Reputational maintenance seems to be a strong motivation. There are fears that any admission of error could unleash an instinct for litigation. Yet the presence of a news ombudsmen has been shown to reduce law suits, not encourage them.   

For media watchers, the Leveson Inquiry into the activities of Murdoch-owned publications in the UK is fascinating to behold. Dozens of journalists have been summoned to testify before the inquiry. Other journalists have been charged in connection with the phone-hacking scandal. The Inquiry is not expected to hand down a decision for some months.

In Australia, a government inquiry is also looking into similar issues around how the media behave. It's assumed that in both countries, there will be recommendations for a more pro-active form of government-encouraged regulation. Media managers in other countries are paying close attention to the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry. Some news organizations are already beefing up their interactions with the public with more online openness. This may be too little for a public clamoring for significant changes beyond a real seat at the table.

While the journalistic lapses committed by the Murdoch empire are serious enough, the financial upheaval around the world has other serious consequences that may be more long-lasting and damaging.

And so some interesting thinking and discussions have begun:

These involve how to create institutional ombudsmen inside financial and other organizations. These can be both classical ombudsmen who act as agents for the public as well as organizational ombudsmen who act as advocates for fair process for internal constituencies, to help create cultures of trust, candor and accountability within these organizations.

Just as news ombudsmen do.

The value of corporate ombudsmen is evident: ombudsmen can act as an early warning system when financial and media organizations lose their sense of obligation to shareholders and/or the public. In doing so they can obviate the need for whistle blowers (both inside and out) by nurturing these positive cultures rather than simply condoning more conventional cultures of compliance.

Some companies that have successfully implemented the organizational ombuds role. But more needs to be done. For some banks, that particular barn door has been open for quite a while now. And many in the financial industry assume that once the financial insecurities are dealt with, then it can be back to business as usual. That scenario seems unlikely.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is clear about the urgency for banks, governments, large public and quasi-public institutions to hear what the public is saying. And it's not just a "feel-good" issue: a Canadian research group, Samara, has just published a study that shows that when public institutions remain unresponsive, it creates a sense of civic disengagement, lower voter turnout and higher public cynicism. 

Simply hearing those voices may not be enough to reaffirm public confidence. It would be a start. But it may not be enough. Public confidence in institutions has been so shaken and so damaged by ethical lapses, that having a traditional ombudsman perceived as just an institutional maître d' may not be enough. The public doesn't want to be shown to a table. They want to sit down and eat.

Ombudsmen will need to be more pro-active, and more willing to identify the failings and weaknesses of media, banks, universities and governments. This may be a more vigorous and activist form of ombudsmanship than we have seen in the past. But the past, it is said, is another country. We are in a much different place these days and ombudsmen need to acknowledge that.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jeffrey: If anyone knows this, you do.

    Can you point out some examples where an ombudsone's decision has changed the practices of a news organization? Not an inquiry by a government or other regulator that has authority to impose change.... A persuasive ruling from an ombud.

    Step one: A concerned or offended party asks an ombud to look into a story or issue.

    Step two: The ombud investigates and reports that in the news organization was wrong.

    Step three: The managers of the news organization say the ombud makes a good point, and we will change the way we do business, starting now.

    In my limited and anecdotal experience, the outcome is more like this:

    Step one: As above.

    Step two: The ombud points out that the offending practice is inconsistent with existing policies and practices, and says one or two people did wrong.

    Step three: The managers say they have clear rules against this, they regret that someone failed to follow the rules, and they promise to enforce the rules in future.
    The percentages are approx 90-10 against any change in policies or practices, 60-40 in favour of sending some kind of communiqué to remind employees of the rule, 50-50 for stepping up enforcement of the rule.

    My recent anecdotal example is the complaint to a former employer of yours and mine, about the Kevin O'Leary and his on-air comments to Chris Hedges. A complaint handled by an ombud with excellent credentials, which produced approx zero change.

    Disclosure: I have limited knowledge of whether the producers of the tv show have modified O'Leary's conduct. I don't watch the show much. I have real foghorns in the harbour, and I can hear them from home. I don't need a human impersonator. Not even a self-important one who likes good guitars.

    George Jamieson