By John Hamer
Washington News Council
It’s really important that we have accountability mechanisms in journalism. When it comes to our own accountability, most news organizations are doing a pretty poor job, to be blunt.”
– Craig Silverman, in keynote speech to Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) annual convention, Montreal
Craig Silverman, a regular columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and The Toronto Star, is also author of “Regret the Error – How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.”
In his talk to the world’s ombudsmen last week, Silverman cited several studies which found that 40 to 60 percent of news stories contained some kind of error! A comprehensive survey of U.S. newspapers found the highest error rate on record.
“We’ve been telling people for literally hundreds of years that when we make a mistake we correct it,” Silverman said. But the U.S. study found a correction rate of only about 2 percent.
“That is pretty outrageous,” Silverman said. “If we’re only correcting 2 percent of errors, we’re not meeting our own standards. It represents a serious failure on the part of news organizations.”
“Reporters will be inclined to not want to run a correction, because they’ve been trained that that’s a bad thing,” Silverman said. “They need to change that attitude.” He’s right on both counts.
What’s more, errors are “now forever,” because they are cached online, and spread worldwide by Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., Silverman noted. Dealing with complaints about errors is one of the jobs of news ombudsmen – and also of news or press councils.
I joined the Organization of News Ombudsmen as an associate member last year, partly because I love the acronym – ONO! – but also because the Washington News Council is a kind of “outside ombudsman” for news media in this state.
Unfortunately, there are no full-time ombudsmen at any news organizations in our state anymore. That’s too bad. Over the years when I was at The Seattle Times, they had four different ombudsmen. A couple of them were pretty good. I edited their columns, which ran on the editorial pages.
Ombudsmen hear and respond to complaints from readers, viewers or listeners about news stories that are arguably inaccurate, unfair, imbalanced and/or unethical. That’s also what news or press councils do – and what we have done for the past 13 years.
Some say ombudsmen – since they are employed by the news outlets, have offices in or near the newsrooms, and generally know the editors, reporters, and producers – can deal with complaints more effectively. Of course, since their salaries are paid by those they are hired to critique, some also may question their level of independence. But most try to be fair, thorough and constructively critical. Many do criticize their own newspapers, broadcast stations, and/or websites strongly – and they’re often not too popular in newsrooms.
Also, the number of ombudsmen around the world has declined over the years – especially in the United States. ONO now has about 60 members worldwide, with only 20 in the U.S. Many media organizations say they simply can’t afford the position anymore, when they don’t even have enough reporters to cover their local communities.
Ombudsmen’s jobs have been eliminated at many American newspapers in recent decades – including at The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At the same time, some of the best American newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today – have created or enhanced the position, although some are called “public editors” or “reader representatives.” There are also experienced ombudsmen at most major broadcast news outlets worldwide. In this country, only PBS, NPR and now ESPN have ombudsmen.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, former NPR ombudsman who now is executive director of ONO, told his colleagues in Montreal: “The ombudsman’s job is like being on the front lines of the First Amendment…We’re in between the public and the editors. We point out the warts and flaws. The [news] organization doesn’t want to hear it. We’re speaking truth to power.”
Jacob Mollerup, the current president of ONO whose title is “Listeners and Viewers Editor” at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Copenhagen, wryly described the job as “a lonely hell.”
He was only half joking. ONO members often say they have “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” Most journalists don’t like to hear complaints about their work and are reluctant to make corrections or explain their performance in public – which is what they always demand of those they cover. Double standard? Unquestionably.
The annual ONO conference is an opportunity for attendees to come together, swap stories, compare tactics, and commiserate with others who are in the same boat. Three days of panels, speakers and “shop talk” – with a few dinners and receptions thrown in – clearly have a therapeutic effect.
A draft business plan, sent out in advance and discussed on the final day of the gathering, notes that ONO’s first goal should be as a “meeting place and discussion forum.” The Montreal conference, for the first time, was simultaneously translated into English, French and Spanish, which was a great help to all.
Another goal is outreach – promoting ombudsmanship in cooperation with partners around the world. That includes to “be a serious partner in media projects where different organizations join forces in order to promote media accountability.”
A third is to expand the organization: “ONO should welcome members of independent press councils as associates.” I was invited to speak on a panel at their convention last year at Oxford University on how ombudsmen and press councils can work more closely together. And Mollerup recently attended the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE) conference.
A final goal is to keep an open mind for new projects and ways of promoting media accountability – including in cyberspace. That’s precisely what the WNC has been doing for the last few years, and I shared some of our ideas with ONO members:
- Report an Error. Silverman and Scott Rosenberg of MediaBugs have developed a new online “Report an Error” system now being used by about 100 news sites and blogs. The WNC has been working with them and we now have the “Report an Error” widget on this site. We invite readers to report errors in Pacific Northwest media as we test this intriguing new system.
- NewsTrust.net. We also invite them to nominate and review state and regional stories on our NewsTrust.net widget. You must register to become a reviewer and it’s a great tool, especially to praise high-quality stories.
- Online community. People may join our online community and begin participating in discussions of various topics. Our groups have grown steadily.
- Online Media Guide. We’re also developing a new Online Media Guide (OMG) for Washington news and information sources, which will be a valuable resource for journalists, public-affairs professionals, politicians, academics, etc.
One of the most interesting speakers in Montreal was Guy Amyot, executive secretary of the Press Council of Quebec. His council, unlike some others in Canada and elsewhere, hears complaints about print, broadcast and online news media, not just newspapers.
“It is the liberty of the press to be independent from any power structure, but because of this freedom they have to be accountable,” Amyot said. “The media are not obliged to name ombudsmen and are also not obliged to join press councils.” But, he strongly suggested, they should do both. He’s absolutely right.
In order to maintain public trust and credibility, all those practicing journalism need to be more transparent, accountable and open. Ombudsmen and news councils can clearly help – if more journalists would only listen.
This column was originally published on The Washington News Council Web site on May 24, 2011.