The Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors (ONO) is a modern, international non-profit organization. ONO membership comprises news ombudsmen, readers’ representatives and standards editors from around the world, working online, in print, in television and radio. All are individuals who work for professional news organizations such as the Associated Press, the BBC, the Guardian, CBC, the ABC and SBS in Australia and the Hindu in India. Editorial standards editors work to maintain ethical practice in their newsrooms, while ombudsmen or reader representatives attempt to find mutually satisfactory solutions to complaints about coverage. Both standards editors and ombudsmen seek to explain the workings of journalism to their audiences.
Since its inception in 1980, ONO has built an active cohort of European, Scandinavian, British, South American, Indian, Australian and Canadian editorial standards and editorial complaints handling executives. It is also working to strengthen relationships with the Asian news media who share its editorial principles of independence, fairness, balance and accuracy.
Purposes of ONO
“Dedicated to protecting and enhancing quality journalism by encouraging respectful and truthful discourse about journalism’s practices and purposes.”
The Organization of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editors is a best practice organisation, encouraging reliable editorial standards processes and effective editorial complaints handling mechanisms.
ONO aims to:
• Promote the values of accuracy, fairness and balance in news reporting for the public good.
• Assist media organizations to provide mechanisms to ensure they remain accountable to consumers of their news.
• Encourage transparency within news media organizations to develop trust within their audience.
• Support the role of news ombudsmen, readers’ editors and other mediators between the news consumer and the media organization.
The ONO Annual Conference
The main event on the ONO calendar is its annual conference, which examines current challenges facing news media and news audiences and how those issues are affecting the work of its members.
ONO’s 2009 conference was held in Washington DC, at the offices of National Public Radio, The Washington Post and the Washington Bureau of The New York Times. The 2010 conference took place at Reuters Institute, and St Peter’s College Oxford University, Oxford, England, the 2011 conference at CBC in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and the 2013 conference in Los Angeles, California. Conferences in Copenhagen (2014), Hamburg (2015), Buenos Aires (2016), Chennai (2017), Amsterdam (2018) and New York (2019) followed. Topics discussed at annual conferences are usually of an ethical nature, because news ombudsmen and standards editors are more often than not concerned with the ethics of reporting the news. Some of topics raised in the past include coverage of minorities, coverage of sex crimes, the relationship to the news department, the use of anonymous sources, invasion of privacy, plagiarism, conflicts of interest.
Besides attending the ONO’s annual conference, many members of the ONO often participate in small mini-conferences which are conducted by conference telephone calls or email throughout the year. Members can raise issues they are dealing with and swap viewpoints on a wide range of topics that news ombudsmen and standards editors deal with on a regular basis. The goal is to provide participants with support, counsel and problem-solving ideas. In 2020, in the absence of a conference due to coronavirus, members held an annual general meeting combined with a mini-conference on the challenges of working during COVID-19. The meeting, attended by a majority of members, was held via Zoom.
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.
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 Executive Director. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Annual dues are US$200 for major market newspapers/network broadcasters, $100 for all other media organizations, US$150 for associate membership and US$75 for ex-ombudsmen.