ONO Newsletter August 2020

Another Virtual Meeting Coming Soon!

The ONO Board is planning another Zoom discussion for members in late September / early October.

The topic is going to be the ongoing relevance and importance of impartiality as part of editorial standards.

We are currently chasing one or two external speakers to join us for the discussion, but we feel sure it is an issue that is particularly relevant to many of our members. We will be in touch soon with further details including a precise date and we are encouraging as many of you as possible to join us on the day with your views and your own experiences on this issue.

If you have particular information or ideas you would like to share, drop Executive Director Alan Sunderland a line at newsombudsmenorg@gmail.com and he will be sure to call on you during the session.

By way of background and a bit of a reminder, traditional objectivity is a fundamentally important issue for ombudsmen and standards editors, given how many editorial standards and codes of conduct incorporate a commitment to impartiality or objectivity in one form or another.

But the concept has come up for debate in recent times, at least partly between old, more traditional defenders of impartial journalism and younger reporters and thinkers who say journalism needs to be grounded in values.

Since our last newsletter in July, some of the more interesting contributions to this debate have included:

This debate clearly still has a way to go, and that makes it an important one for ombudsmen and standards editors to be across, so join us soon for this important discussion.

 Other Industry and Member News

  • Here’s an interesting piece from Margaret Sullivan, former Public Editor for the New York Times, on good and bad corrections.
  • The Columbia Journalism Review’s “public editor” overseeing The Washington Post says the bright side of the pandemic is that at least it has helped make political coverage more serious.
  • ONO Board Member and NPO Ombudsman Margo Smit published this fascinating review into how her organization had covered the first several months of COVID-19.
  • ONO Board Member and Readers’ Editor at The Hindu newspaper, A.S. Panneerselvan, writes on the never-ending challenge of journalists on Twitter.
  • ONO Member Elisabeth Ribbans, who is the Guardian and Observer newspapers’ global readers’ editor, deals with the perennial question of how journalists can make basic errors such as mistaken identity.
  • ONO Member, distinguished journalism scholar and former AP standards editor Tom Kent cheers us all up by suggesting that perhaps disinformation is losing the battle for hearts and minds.
  • New ONO Member and the recently appointed Public Editor at the Toronto Star, Bruce Campion-Smith, provides this timely reminder that opinion columnists are often both entitled and expected to challenge and confront some readers.
  • Finally, new ONO Board Member and CBC Ombudsman Jack Nagler published this detailed review looking into a complaint about the way data and statistics about COVID-19 are reported.

Feature Article


A conversation with Arthur Nauman, ONO pioneer and Ombudsman at the Sacramento Bee, 1980-1997

Back in May, as part of the research for the article on ONO’s history, Executive Director Alan Sunderland spoke to Arthur Nauman, one of the key figures in the establishment of ONO in 1980.

The conversation covered the history of ONO as well as the current state of journalism forty years later.

In this edited extract, Arthur begins by discussing an early example of how his work was received by journalists at the newspaper, painting a vivid picture of on occasion when he was about to publish a column criticising one of the paper’s most well liked journalists.

He then goes on to talk more broadly about journalism, ombudsmen and the role of ONO…

ARTHUR:          The night before publication there was a staff party – to which I was not invited – and they gathered around the reporter that was being criticised. They’d had a lot of beer (and I got this from someone who heard all of this exchange) and there was a lot of talk. They surrounded their good buddy and said ‘How the hell can a newspaper like ours have a guy who writes things like that? I mean that was so unfair, you were just doing your job the way you were supposed to’. The reporter listened very carefully to these words of support and then he said ‘Hold it fellas, what you seem to have forgotten is … I f*cked up’.

And so the column ran and Monday morning the reporter came to my office and said, you know you wrote what you had to write and I understand, I probably had it coming. But let me tell you this: I will never, ever again appear in your column.

ALAN:                 It’s interesting first of all how people can get so upset and fraught at the idea that you are going to have to publicly criticise their work, and yet it is often some of the best reporters that are the focus of your work because they are quite often the ones that are pushing the boundaries the most and are coming up against some of these ethical issues.

ARTHUR:          Quite so, you’re absolutely right. I haven’t tried to quantify that or go back to my old columns but I think, yes, that the reporters who found themselves in my crosshairs were the ones who were covering the most critical events and news stories. I seldom had to write columns about the food editor or the restaurant critic. It was the journalists who covered the Capitol in Washington, who covered City Hall, and some feature writers who were doing long-form stories.

When I left after – let’s see, I was an ombuddy for close to 17 years – they would sometimes ask how did it turn out? Every week you were writing, and sometimes you had to criticise the newspaper but sometimes you didn’t side with the readers. How was the score, how bad was The Sacramento Bee? Well, if it was expressed like a baseball game, it was Sacramento Bee 7, readers 5.

On the whole, the Bee did pretty well, better than average. It had its flaws but on the whole it was one heck of a good newspaper. We had a good solid cadre of readers who gave a damn. Unfortunately, the Sacramento Bee has become a shadow of its former self, I call it the ‘Daily Pamphlet’ around here and my wife and I subscribe to the daily New York Times and without it we’d be lost, I think.

That brings me to something that really concerns me. I looked over the list of ombudsmen , US ombudsmen who were members of ONO and I see there’s AP and there’s PBS and one or two others, but that’s about it. When the economic realities hit the newspaper world here, and I suspect it was true everywhere else, among the first people that were let go were the ombudsmen and I guess if I were the managing editor or the editor or the owner of a paper I would probably make that decision too.

ALAN:                 I think you’re right…if you go looking for ombudsmen in the US newspaper world you simply won’t find them. Even the traditionally well-funded, the Washington Post doesn’t have one any more, the New York Times doesn’t have one any more, the LA Times doesn’t have one, but many of them will still have a degree of public accountability and many of them will still have some sort of a standards editor who is working in that area. We’ve been trying to expand our membership base a little bit. We want to hold on to the key principle of ONO, which is that you need to be independent, to have integrity, to be transparent about your standards and to be accountable to the public for those standards. If you’ve got those commitments then we are trying to target those people….if we can bring them into the fold and include them in the conversation about accountability for standards, that will help us to expand our base and our visibility. Because of course the role has never been more important than it is now.

ARTHUR:          Oh absolutely, absolutely. You are so right.

ALAN:                 I wanted to ask you… what did you see as the fundamental activities and the things that ONO as an organization tried to do while you were there?

ARTHUR:          I think I saw my role as being the binder. If they were doing their jobs well they were probably pretty lonely people and I saw ONO as a way of bringing us all together for a common cause. These were the days before ONO became a formal institution. I just wanted to be the instrument for bringing a camaraderie to these people because we really were not, I don’t want to use the word not welcome, but we marched to a much different drum. I saw ONO as a way to make all of us feel we represented something important in journalism, most of us were doing it very well and courageously and this organization of ours would give us a sense of belonging… I saw the newsletter as a way of linking everybody together. The yearly conferences were very important, we were very fortunate in being able to attract good speakers – Ben Bradlee one year…

ALAN:                 That’s really useful and I’d have to say in our conferences we still talk about common issues and common challenges and how we deal with certain issues and the kind of complaints we get, so sense of inclusiveness and just being a forum top swap ideas is still very much at the heart of ONO.

Another thing I wanted to get your thoughts on… obviously everybody is thinking and worrying about the state of the media and the state of newspapers generally, for two big reasons. One is the collapsing business model and the other problem of course is those politicians who love to call out “fake news” on everything they don’t like and deliberately undermine the public support for the media. I’m interested in your own reflections on those twin problems, how bad you think they are and whether you are pessimistic or whether you think there is still a way forward for good journalism?

ARTHUR:          Yes, I think there is a way forward for good journalism. It probably won’t be on the printed page, alas and alack, in the same form that we see it now. You know, I can’t really predict where this is going but I think the world definitely needs, and the US in particular with the current President, needs very rigorous and important journalism. As journalists we would be examining, questioning, and I think that will continue. We won’t be seeing it in quite the same way as printed page the way we do now. I hate that idea because I don’t like to read the newspaper on the screen but I think that’s where we’re headed. The other thing, the attacks on the press – that’s going to continue, its even going to pass the tenure of our current President, he has set the tone for it and there’s a huge body of conservative right wing people out there who have taken up his notions of fake news and so forth. We’re going to have to withstand that by turning the other cheek. We’re going to have to work even harder to maintain our integrity. It’s not going to be easy but we’re going to have to find a way to do it. And I am just counting on our universities, our young journalists, who can be mentored properly to understand. ONO will have a role in this, I can see that, to stand up straight and let the man say what he wants to, but prove to the world that we’re not getting fake news. They can call it fake news all they want , but we’re going to give you the straight stuff… this is important.

ALAN:                 ..I think the fundamentals haven’t changed and I think people still want to … you couldn’t have put it better … they want the straight stuff, they want to get the information about the world they live in, that helps them understand and helps them be good citizens and those fundamentals haven’t changed.  That’s why the ombudsman role is so important.

ARTHUR:          Hear hear. Well said…. 

ALAN:                 Finally, on behalf of people who are now, in 2020, keeping this great idea of ONO going along, a genuine thank you for the work you did in the early days.

ARTHUR:          Thank you so much. You’ve made my day and I wish you all the best.

Bjarne Schilling                                                                                        Alan Sunderland

ONO President                                                                                ONO Executive Director

[CORRECTION : In an earlier version of this post, the name of Ben Bradlee was unfortunately mispelled as “Bradley”.]

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