Station ombudsman builds viewer trust

Paul Giacobbe isn’t on-air much at WJAR Providence, but when he is, viewers—and station staffers—take particular notice. Both parties are prime players in Giacobbe’s Viewer’s Voice segments, which shine a light on WJAR reports that have stirred controversy with the station’s audience.

Giacobbe is the ombudsman at the Media General station, charged with making sure that WJAR’s reporting follows the rules of fairness, accuracy and balance. He may be the only station ombudsman in America, but at a time when local TV is increasingly looking to build viewer trust, some believe the role has never been more essential. “The ombudsman gives the station a greater amount of credibility,” Giacobbe says, “and gives people a sense of trust in the station.”

The ombudsman—a public advocate keeping an impartial watch on a media outlet’s reporting—is a rare breed. Among others, Clark Hoyt holds the Public Editor title at The New York Times while Andrew Alexander fills the ombudsman role at The Washington Post. But the crunch hitting the newspaper industry has made the position an unaffordable expense for many.

The post is less common in broadcasting. Don Ohlmeyer was named ESPN ombudsman in July, and Michael Getler does the same for PBS. However, Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) Executive Director Jeffrey Dvorkin says Giacobbe is the only local TV ombudsman among ONO members, while ABC News and NPR are among the very few other national networks with one in place. He counts 40 news ombudsmen in the U.S., down from around 50 five years ago, though a few recent hires may suggest a post-recession trend. “That may indicate that some media organizations are coming back to a position where they understand the value of the ombudsman,” he says.

RTDNA Chairman Stacey Woelfel says stations often address viewer concerns with on-air segments. But with stations increasingly looking to involve viewers in the newsgathering mix, he says the ombudsman model can make abundant sense for those that can afford it. “As we move to an era of transparency and interactivity in local news,” Woelfel says, “having an ombudsman is a great way to do both.”

Initially a newspaper reporter with the Providence Journal, Giacobbe started at WJAR as an investigative reporter in 1978, but left two years later to practice law full time. He reconnected with WJAR when then-parent GE mandated that its owned stations have some sort of quality control mechanism in place. WJAR’s news director at the time saw it as an ombudsman, and Giacobbe came on board 11 years ago.

WJAR is a news power in Providence. It bagged $28.48 million in 2008, according to BIA/Kelsey, good for 43% of the revenue in the No. 53 DMA. But the station has been hit hard with the layoffs and furloughs mandated by Media General, and has seen increased competition. LIN’s WPRI grabbed late-news honors in November for the first time since 1993.

But through it all, WJAR has kept its ombudsman. It’s not a pricey position; Giacobbe gets $500 a month and airs four to five segments a year, while addressing a larger number of viewer concerns on a blog. Giacobbe speaks with the reporters and managers involved in the story in question before producing his segment.

On Dec. 4, he addressed the previous week’s report about a man who went missing while “quahogging” (digging for regional quahog clams), during which it was revealed that the man had been convicted of a sex crime a decade before. After 18 viewers contacted the station to say it was unnecessary to mention the conviction, Giacobbe met with the reporters.

Giacobbe said the station was right to mention the man’s criminal past—he’d been the first sex offender in Rhode Island subject to community notification under Megan’s Law—but was wrong to give it as much airtime as WJAR did. “Mentioning the man’s past should’ve been just that; only a mention and not a full separate story with pictures revisiting the circumstances of his 1999 conviction,” he said on-air. “That’s what was done, and that was too much.”

Besides correcting the record and keeping reporters on their toes, the ombudsman makes life easier for WJAR VP/General Manager Lisa Churchville, who can direct perturbed viewers (and advertisers) to an impartial arbiter such as Giacobbe. Churchville calls Giacobbe a “valuable” staffer with a deep concern for journalism. “Holding ourselves as accountable as we hold others is important,” she says. “Paul has diffused many situations—especially in the separation of journalism and commerce.”

WJAR managers say the ombudsman has been essential in building trust with viewers in an era rife with unaccountable “news” sources. “I do hear in the community that the ombudsman ups the trust factor,” says WJAR Content Brand Manager Chris Lanni, “when people can communicate directly with the news station.”

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