The role of a news ombudsman is often described in a manner that might give one pause to think about taking on the job.
In opening the annual conference of the Organization of News Ombudsmen in Montreal this week, ONO president Jacob Mollerup reminded the 38 “ombuddies” attending from around the world why our relatively small group aims to meet each year.
“A couple of years ago one of our colleagues described the work of a news ombudsman as a lonely hell,” Mollerup, the “listeners’ and viewers’ editor” of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, said in his opening remarks. “But our annual gathering is close to the opposite. Here we can talk freely about thin-skinned editors and stubborn complainants.”
Whatever the job is called — ombudsman, readers’ editor, readers’ advocate or, in the Toronto Star’s case, public editor — this role of interacting with readers and holding a newsroom’s journalists to account for accuracy and high ethical standards is not without its challenges. As more than one of the ombuds remarked this week, it is a rare day when someone in the public, or someone in the newsroom or, on the worst of days, both, is not cross with us.
As always, this year’s ONO conference provided ample opportunity for ombuds to trade war stories and share lessons learned about our role within news organizations in asking the tough questions demanded in mediating conflicts about accuracy and fairness.
But, as with most any gathering of journalists these days, our agenda was dominated by both hand-wringing and hope about how to maintain strong journalistic standards and ensure media accountability in a digital world.
“There was a time when we told the stories, we built the narratives, but now anyone can play. And play they do. Instant news. Instant rumour,” Esther Enkin, executive editor of CBC News said in a passionate opening address to the conference. “Journalism will never be the same in this digital age.”
ONO aims to be at the forefront in the global debates about evolving journalistic standards, media accountability and the importance of media self-regulation to freedom of expression.
“Citizens are ultimately the ones who benefit from common standards and practices among ombudsmen,” Jeffrey Dvorkin, ONO’s executive director, said. “Fair and balanced reporting is a core value no matter where we live.”
ONO was founded in 1980 by ombudsmen from newspapers across North America, including the Star. The role of ombudsman was established here in 1972 by then president and publisher Beland H. Honderich to give readers “one central person to deal with on all matters involving fairness or accuracy. . .”
The title was changed to public editor in 2005, but serving the Star’s readers and ensuring the accuracy of the Star remains the core mandate of this role. The Star is now the only Canadian newspaper with a public editor.
While ONO’s North American membership has dwindled as newspapers faced with falling advertising revenues have axed the role, ONO now has members from 20 countries on five continents, representing newspapers, broadcasters and digital operations.
With the media landscape evolving rapidly, so too has this organization to include media bloggers and “citizen ombudsmen” who’ve embraced digital technology to push media organizations toward more accountability. Indeed, one of ONO’s new associate members is the director of the media watchdog site, Stinkyjournalism.org.
Among its more traditional members, ONO includes ombuds from some of the world’s most reputable news organizations. These include the public editor of the New York Times, the ombudsman of the Washington Post, the readers’ editor of the Los Angeles Times and the readers’ editors of London’s Guardian and its sister paper the Observer.
Broadcast members include the ombudsmen for America’s NPR and PBS, Australia’s SBS (Special Broadcasting Corp.) and the directors of editorial policies and standards for both the BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.) and the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.)
The conference this year was sponsored in part by CBC/Radio-Canada, which has ombudsmen serving both its English and French audiences. CBC is the only Canadian broadcaster to make itself accountable through its ombudsmen.
Our sessions were thoughtful and thought-provoking. We discussed how to be transparent in correcting content online in a world where readers have become fact checkers. We deliberated on the challenges of determining the reliability of sources and information in the wake of Wikileaks. We debated the tensions of Twitter even as some of us tweeted the question put to us by the ex-ombudsman of France’s FR1: “If journalists don’t verify information before publishing then what are journalists for?”
The conference raised many such challenging questions. Given ONO’s commitment to media accountability and transparency, the way ahead will demand many more hard questions.
This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on May 20, 2011.