What is an ombudsman?
An ombudsman is someone who handles complaints and attempts to find mutually satisfactory solutions. Ombudsmen can be found in government, corporations, hospitals, universities and other institutions. The first ombudsman was appointed in 1809 in Sweden to handle citizens’ complaints about the government. The word is pronounced “om-BUDS-man” and is Scandinavian in origin.
What is a news ombudsman?
A news ombudsman receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio and television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports.
Why should a newspaper or broadcaster have an ombudsman?
- To improve the quality of news reporting by monitoring accuracy, fairness and balance.
- To help his or her news provider to become more accessible and accountable to readers or audience members and, thus, to become more credible.
- To increase the awareness of its news professionals about the public’s concerns.
- To save time for publishers and senior editors, or broadcasters and news directors, by channelling complaints and other inquiries to one responsible individual.
- To resolve some complaints that might otherwise be sent to attorneys and become costly lawsuits.
How do news ombudsmen work?
No two ombudsmen work exactly alike. But typically, they monitor news and feature columns, photography and other graphic materials for fairness, accuracy and balance. They bring substandard items to the attention of the appropriate members of the news staff.
They investigate and reply to comments and complaints concerning published or broadcast news and feature material. They obtain explanations from editors and other staff members for readers, viewers or listeners.
Some supervise the preparation of corrections. Others write internal newsletters about readers’ views and complaints. Many news ombudsmen write regular columns that deal with issues of broad public interest, or with specific grievances. Where appropriate, columns may criticize, explain or praise.
Other ombudsmen initiate or coordinate public forums or reader advisory boards in an effort to connect more closely with readers. Many speak before various public and private groups to help explain media practices. Some send accuracy questionnaires to persons whose names have appeared in news stories and ask for comments.
In some smaller news organizations ombudsmen find it necessary to assume other news-related duties. But in any event, news ombudsmen generally function in an advisory capacity only, not as disciplinarians.
How does the public benefit?
An ombudsman helps to explain the news-gathering process to the public, a process that often is mysterious and, therefore, suspect to many readers.
Having a contact person can help overcome the belief that news media are aloof, arrogant or insensitive to concerns of the public and generally inaccessible to average citizens.
An ombudsman’s column provides still another useful forum for readers, particularly in one-newspaper cities.
Most ombudsmen are selected from within the senior staff of the newspaper or broadcaster they monitor. A few are on fixed-term contracts. In any case, they typically have deep experience in journalism and are chosen also because they have the ability to relate easily and openly to readers.
Is this a new idea?
Relatively speaking, yes — at least in the United States and Canada. The first newspaper ombudsman in the U.S. was appointed in June 1967 in Louisville, Kentucky, to serve readers of The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times. The first Canadian appointment — at The Toronto Star — was in 1972. The concept was in place much earlier in Japan. The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo established a committee in 1922 to receive and investigate reader complaints. Another mass circulation Tokyo paper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, set up a staff committee in 1938 to monitor the paper’s quality. In 1951 this group became an ombudsman committee which today hears reader complaints about the paper and which meets daily with editors. News ombudsmen today are found throughout North and South America, Europe, and parts of the Middle East and Asia.
Are they always called “ombudsmen?”
No. Some newspapers use titles such as “readers’ representative,” “readers’ advocate,” or “public editor.” Others have an assistant managing editor or an assistant to a senior editor act as an ombudsman.
What is the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors (ONO)?
Formed in 1980, ONO is a nonprofit corporation with an international membership of active and associate members. It maintains contact with news ombudsmen and standards editors worldwide, and organizes annual conferences, held in a member’s city, for discussion of news practices and a wide range of issues connected with ombudsman work.
What is the “mission statement” of ONO?
- The news ombudsman is dedicated to protecting and enhancing the quality of journalism by encouraging respectful and truthful discourse about journalism’s practices and purposes.
- The news ombudsman’s primary objective is to promote transparency within his / her news organization.
- The ombudsman works to protect press freedom and promote responsible, high-quality journalism.
- Part of the ombudsman’s role is to receive and investigate complaints about news reporting on behalf of members of the public.
- The ombudsman recommends the most suitable course of action to resolve issues raised in complaints.
- The ombudsman is an independent officer acting in the best interests of news consumers.
- The ombudsman strives to remain completely neutral and fair.
- The ombudsman refrains from engaging in any activity that could create a conflict of interest.
- The ombudsman explains the roles and obligations of journalism to the public.
- The ombudsman acts as a mediator between the expectations of the public and the responsibilities of journalists.
What happens at the organization’s annual conference?
ONO’s yearly meetings are usually held over 2 1/2 working days, and include seminars, panels and speakers on current journalistic topics of special interest to ombudsmen and standards editors. In addition, ample program time is allotted for shoptalk discussions. Members share their experiences and counsel about how to handle difficult situations.
Conference speakers have included David Shaw, Los Angeles Times media critic; British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper; Ben Bradlee, former Washington Post editor; ethicist Michael Josephson; Dr. Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies; and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson.
Among conference topics have been: coverage of minorities; coverage of sex crimes; the ombudsman’s relationship to the news department; the use of anonymous sources; invasion of privacy; plagiarism; conflicts of interest; and a plethora of ethical issues.
In addition to attending ONO’s annual meeting, many ombudsmen and standards editors participate in regular mini-conferences conducted by four-way conference telephone calls throughout the year. During these calls — coordinated by an ONO office — views are swapped and problems are shared, all with the aim of providing participants with support, counsel and problem-solving ideas.
Who may join the Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors?
The organization welcomes all news ombudsmen and standards editors. Others from the media, press councils, journalism schools or journalism publications may apply for associate membership.
For information about membership, please contact Alan Sunderland, ONO’s Treasurer. You can contact him at Sunderland.Alan@abc.net.au. Annual dues are US$300 for major market newspapers/network broadcasters, $150 for all other media organizations, US$150 for associate membership and US$75 for ex-ombudsmen.