Who will hold the news media accountable?

OXFORD UNIVERSITY, ENGLAND – Is there a need for media accountability in the chaotic new world of online journalism? If so, who will hold the media accountable?

In-house ombudsmen? Outside news and press councils? Independent media critics?

The “blogosphere”? All of the above?

Those were among the existential questions at the Organization of News Ombudsmen’s annual convention at Oxford University from May 12-15. The gathering was hosted by the Reuters Center for the Study of Journalism, headquartered at Oxford.

I was invited to join a panel: “Press Councils and Ombudsmen: A New Partnership?”

ONO (one of my all-time favorite acronyms) is a worldwide group most of whose members work for newspapers, television and radio stations. Their job: to deal with complaints from readers, viewers or listeners. But their number is steadily dwindling. This year ONO has about 40 members; two years ago there were 72.

As mainstream news organizations reduce their staffs, the ombudsman’s job is often eliminated. There is no full-time ombudsman at any media outlet in Washington state. When I was at The Seattle Times, four different people held that position over a decade or so, but the position was eliminated in 1990.

Meanwhile, news councils – usually called press councils outside the United States – are growing in number and many are extremely active and effective. My panel at Oxford included John Horgan of the Irish Press Council and Will Gore of the British Press Complaints Commission. There is also an Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe, which Gore helps coordinate.

But in today’s digital media environment, ombudsmen and news/press councils are all rethinking what they do. In a world of instant feedback, commentary and analysis online, are in-house ombudsmen or outside news/press councils still relevant?

The consensus at the three-day Oxford gathering was that both institutions need to do more to adapt to the digital age. Highlights from a few speakers:

Charlie Beckett

Director of POLIS, London School of Economics, Department of Media and Communications

Beckett is the author of SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World. Beckett described what he calls “networked journalism,” which relies on public participation, interactivity and connectivity. “It’s a hurly-burly, incredibly tempestuous form of journalism,” he said, later adding: “Journalism is no longer a product, but a process.”

Live blogging by journalists and citizens means that the story itself is “constantly evolving and constantly negotiable,” Beckett said. “Journalism has gone from a manufacturing industry that creates a product to a service industry….But if you’re going to be a journalist, at least try to be a good journalist – and be more transparent and accountable about how you work.”

Beckett questioned the role of traditional ombudsmen whose salaries are paid by their media organizations. “Who is the watchdog of the media? Who upholds standards? It isn’t us anymore. It’s the public….Transparency replaces regulation. Connectivity and interactivity is the new accountability.”

Beckett noted that just as journalists need to reinvent themselves, ONO members must become “networked ombudsmen” and act as:

  1. Facilitators, not judges
  2. Moderators, not regulators
  3. Forums, not courts
  4. Educators, not enforcers

Sally Begbie

Ombudsman, Special Broadcasting System, Australia

Begbie focused on “Defining News Ombudsmen in a Digital World.” She said: “I take a bit of a middle ground. We have to combine the old with the new and combine our principles in new ways.” As the new vice president of ONO, Begbie said: “ONO should be an industry think tank, a place where the audience can learn about journalism standards and criticism, and also a home for new ombudsmen to share ideas.”

Stewart Chisholm

Senior Program Manager, Media Program, Open Society Institute/Soros Foundation

George Soros’ Open Society Institute has helped fund ONO and supported this conference. Chisholm, based in London, directs the Foundation’s media program, which also has a new transparency and accountability program that stresses self-regulation. Chisholm said: “We support ONO and independent press councils. We’ve passed ONO’s very rigorous guidelines on transparency and accountability.” One new project focuses on mapping the new digital media landscape (www.mediapolicy.org). “What influences have self-regulation efforts, including press councils and ombudsmen, had in the new digital media environment?” Chisholm asked, inviting feedback from ONO members.

Ed Wasserman

Professor of Journalism and Media Ethics, Washington and Lee University, Virginia

Wasserman delivered perhaps the most controversial proposal of the conference: He suggested that ONO should open its membership to the public – including independent critics and citizen bloggers worldwide. They would be “credentialed” by ONO through an exam. “Online, you see a burgeoning and vigorous population of media critics and bloggers who care about journalistic excellence, fairness and accountability,” Wasserman said. “Some are cranks, but many are serious and knowledgeable. They are not our rivals, but our potential allies. They are also key to ONO’s future. It’s the Wild West online, and these people are vigilantes. Pin badges on them and turn them into sheriff’s deputies.”

This would require a re-definition of ombudsmanship: “It’s a practice, not a profession. Find an approach to media scrutiny that embraces fairness, courage, intellectual rigor and public benefit. ONO would insist that its members subscribe to a set of principles. ONO would reposition itself as a worldwide membership organization, and issue credentials for individuals who qualify in our eyes to do that work. People who pass the test would identify themselves as ‘certified media ombudsmen.’” They would pay dues and credential fees. Media organizations would also pay to be part of the organization and accept its findings, he suggested.

“This would harness the vast reservoir that the Internet has released,” Wasserman said. A decade from now, he proposed, there would be a core of salaried staff ombudsmen, mostly among the larger newspapers and broadcast stations, a “far flung network” of trained, committed and credentialed ombudsmen, and a network of news organizations that would cooperate on complaint inquiries. “This is a 2, 3 or 4-year undertaking,” he said, noting that it would need foundation support and a full time secretariat. “We’re talking about creating a new global NGO (non-government organization),” he said. “It will be a lot of work.” The website would be the “premier site for people interested in media ethics and accountability issues” and “a way to capitalize on this growing and vigorous movement to scrutinize the world’s media outlets.”

However, in the ensuing discussion, Wasserman’s proposal got mixed reviews. The professional ombudsmen seemed reluctant to open up their profession to amateurs. Several noted that this could make their positions irrelevant. “Aren’t we digging our own grave? Why keep me if they can get the job done for free?” asked Thom Meens of De Volkskrant in The Netherlands.

“Ombudsmen have a ‘hall pass,’” to talk directly to reporters and editors, said Lisa Shepard, ombudsman for National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington, D.C. “How are these people going to get a hall pass?”

Veronique Maurus, ombudsman for Le Monde in Paris, added: “The fact of being inside is one of the main powers of the ombudsman. You create dialogue, and push the reporters to think about their own practice. When you just criticize from outside it just provokes defense.” She added that this plan would “lower the status” of ombudsmen.

Wasserman conceded that “There is a danger when you let the barbarians in the gates,” but suggested that “you could have tiers of membership.”

But Jacob Mollerup, ombudsman for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and the new president of ONO, said “I have great difficulty in seeing this work in practice. You have to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys.”

Paul Chadwick of the Australian Broadcasting Commission said that ONO members’ credibility depends on the institutions that appoint them, and outside ombudsmen would be self-appointed. “You’re saying that the barbarians are at the gate, so we tell them: ‘Wipe your feet, and if they’re clean enough we’ll let you in.’”

Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) suggested inviting other ombudsmen around the world who are not yet members to join ONO, perhaps at a reduced cost. “By increasing its size, ONO would have greater heft. We could truly be more global if we had 100-150 members.”

ONO actually has been increasingly active in the last two years under Dvorkin and outgoing president Stephen Pritchard of The Observer in London. Its website has been redesigned and site visits have more than doubled. “We are being written about on a daily basis somewhere in the world,” Dvorkin said.

Yavuz Baydar, ombudsman of Sabah in Turkey has written a book on ombudsmanship that will be out soon, and translated into several languages. The translation issue was discussed at length, with all agreeing that the ONO website and any published materials should be available in English, Spanish, French and possibly Chinese.

New ONO President Jacob Mollerup concluded the conference by saying: “We will need accountability and self-regulation in the news media for many years to come.” ONO members are determined to play a key role in that process. But can they do it alone, or will they need help from news/press councils and concerned citizens worldwide?

This column was originally published on the Washington News Council Web site on May 17, 2010.

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