What’s the purpose of ethics codes and ombudsmen?

The codes of ethics and the ombudsmen or defenders of the audience have become one of the topics of debate in media self-regulatory processes.

The legal and political nature of the media which acts as an intermediary between information sources and citizens on one hand, and as a counterweight to public scrutiny of governmental activity, on the other, has historically generated problems establishing, with adequate clarity, the scope and limits of freedom of expression and information and the right to information in a democratic society.

Achieving both freedom and responsibility has been a question that is not easily answered because of the many aspects of the issue.

Self-regulated information may mean the system of rules of conduct adopted by the media in relation to the state, society and the journalistic community, which is equipped with an executive body and/or creation of substantive and procedural rules and aims to preserve the freedom of information with social responsibility.

The press councils or news councils in their collective or trade union expression and ombudsmen of the audience, in the case of specific media or series of media that derive from a single entity, are the formulas for the materialization of the meaning of self-regulation in the comparative experience.

In Mexico, the topic is new, which by itself implies that it is a process of successive approximations. There are some starting points, however, that should be taken into account.

First, there is no single model for the ombudsman of the audience. Establishing unique formulas as an unchangeable recipe for the world would only reflect a colonizing vision of scientific thought at the expense of the unique circumstances faced in each case in the five continents.

It would be like entering into the debate over whether civil law is better than common law or vice versa. It is noteworthy that both legal production systems have strengths and weaknesses and respond to historically and culturally specific states.

However, experience shows different types, perhaps the most significant being the American one that relies on advertising of the actions of the ombudsman and the Japanese, which, on the contrary, is based on the internal work with the media to improve the quality of information.

Mexico has adopted the first model, due to the needs to open mechanisms for citizen participation in the media and to retrieve the ethical fabric of the credibility of the reporting function.

Second, the role of ombudsmen of the audience is not to be the judges of the news office, but venues for: a) providing explanations to the audience about the reasons underlying the actions of the news office, in order to provide greater disclosure of the information that makes the news at the expense of other facts; b) generating a vehicle of communication between society and the medium to provide feedback to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the medium; c) interpreting the ethical principles to specific cases where there is controversy over the handling of information, without falling into a dispute with the news office, a task which is extremely inadequate to improve the decision-making processes that take place, by trial and error, to improve the quality of the information, which is ultimately the reason for being of the ombudsman.

Third, the establishment of clear rules in a statute or regulation of the ombudsman, establishing at least the objectives, responsibilities, ethical principles, independence and timeliness of the ombudsman. Clearly the lack of rules creates uncertainty to the detriment of the universal subjects of information: society, the medium and journalists, because: a) Society would not be able to establish what the ombudsman can and cannot do in the internal life of the medium; and b) The types of ethical commitments undertaken by the medium to the public, so as to be able to claim, if applicable, the violation of any of them in specific circumstances and to exercise oversight on the performance of the medium and its ethical duties.

Fourth, the institution of the ombudsman has rightly set limits in the statutes for its creation. Otherwise, the expression, “Who defends us from the defender?” would make sense. To begin with, the first limit is to respect its own code of ethics whose gradual implementation it is called to promote. Likewise, there are many media that establish as another of the limits the duty to refrain from passing judgments on the career or work of the journalists affected by a complaint (This is established, for example, in the bylaws of the newspapers El Pais, La Vanguardia and La Voz de Galicia that represent the broadest spectrum of the Spanish plurality).

Furthermore, the parties involved are guaranteed equal right to be heard before any public statement of the ombudsman, among other things. These limits make sense in order to avoid undermining the esprit de corps of the medium and prevent the ombudsman from being seen as the enemy within, rather than an agent of constructive criticism.

Fifth, the ombudsman must have the right profile. This means that he must have knowledge of journalism in all its aspects to understand the task he must perform within his communication relationship between the medium and society. Reasonable knowledge of news production machinery can prevent him from colliding with the journalists and, conversely, helps in the task of improving their own professional activity.

In Mexico, there have been ombudsmen of the audience for quite some time, starting with the newspaper El Economista, from Mexico City, that disappeared years later. In the electronic media, TV channels 22 and 11 were the first to have them. And this figure also exists in radio, at the Mexican Radio Institute and Radio Educacion, which was the first in the sector in the country that has had a Listener Obmudsman since 2008.

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