Is the ombudsman’s time past?
ESPN recently announced discontinuing its Public Editor position, saying that real-time feedback “of all kinds” means the position no longer is needed.
This saddens me, greatly, but is not surprising.
The ombudsman, who is paid to represent the concerns of the reader, viewers and consumers of news and information, has had an up-and-down path in American journalism. You would be hard-pressed to find one in the majority of U.S. newsrooms before 1985. In the late 1990s, the trend seemed to swell, and you could find ombudsmen, also called Public Editors and Reader Representatives, at many daily newspapers.
I know. I was a Reader Rep at The Kansas City Star from 2003–2004. The Star had had this position for many years preceding me (Miriam Pepper was Reader Rep before she moved to the Editorial Page), and Star leadership filled my position in 2004 when I became News Editor. The title changed to Public Editor, and Derek Donovan took over the role until just last year (possibly the longest run for a Public Editor). Donovan, too, also moved to the Editorial Page.
The ombudsman role seemed to flourish at daily metro papers, and many of these high-profile editors had laudable careers:
Richard Harwood was the first ombudsman at the Washington Post, where he won many awards and made lasting change for the paper:
As ombudsman of the Post, a job he took in 1970, Harwood affected the paper in many ways. He got the sports section to drop the name Cassius Clay when referring to boxing champion Muhammad Ali. And he helped eliminate potentially divisive terms like “hippie” and “hard hat” from the paper’s news columns. On another occasion, his probe of a reader’s complaint led to a Page 1 apology. — Los Angeles Times wire services
Michael Getler, 13th Post Ombudsman and first for the Public Broadcasting System in 2013, had received attention from the Unabomber:
Mr. Getler was also the Post editor who in 1995 received a 56-page single-spaced typed manifesto from the man, known as the Unabomber, who was responsible for a string of bombings. — New York Times
And then there were the many editors, like me, who were not famous but were just as passionate about truth and ethics.
I was called Reader Rep, and not ombudsman, because I was employed by the newspaper. The tradtional ombudsman is of Swedish origin and was established there in 1809. “The term ‘Ombudsman’ is an English translation of the Swedish word umbuds man from the Old Norse umboosmaor, meaning representative,” according to Ombudsman.org. It is a position independent of the company.
As Reader Rep for The Star, I wrote a weekly column about national and local topics, from 9/11, the Daniel Pearl beheading video, printing the death photos of Saddam Hussein’s sons, the Kobe Bryant rape case, the Janet Jackson “clothing malfunction” at the Super Bowl, to the local weather report and the comics pages.
Every column was important to me, and I got ideas from news of the day as well as from readers. I talked to readers every day, from 8:30 to noon, for more than a year. I listened to a lot of complaints, and a few praises. The job was rigorous, and I had to be “right” — or at least I had to be able to back up my stand behind or against the Star’s decisions. Mostly, I explained how the newspaper came to its decisions, but when I could not agree with that decision, I said so.
That’s the importance of the role, whether independent contractor or staff, to be able to speak your mind, as an ethical journalist, about the decisions the media outlet makes. Any editor paid by the outlet must have an agreement to this effect, or he or she is not truly representing the readers.
With ESPN, the Post and the New York Times all dropping their ombudsmen (along with The Kansas City Star and many other smaller newspapers) there are concerns that readers lose.
Last year, Post Opinion writer David Ignatius called to bring back the position. He said it is needed in this era of “fake news” and decreasing trust:
How do we broaden public trust? One approach that news organizations embraced a few decades ago, when they had more money to spend and fewer freelance critics, was to create an in-house ombudsman or public editor to represent readers and viewers. Most big news organizations, including The Post and the New York Times, have dropped their ombudsmen over the past decade. That was a mistake, I think.
The announcement from ESPN in May 2018 said the company still is committed to “quality, impact journalism,” but it brings up the explanation given by many who have dropped the role — that the internet makes it obsolete:
While ESPN has valued the input and dedication shown by everyone who held the position, we too have seen how access to the Internet and its social platforms has created a horde of watchdogs who communicate directly with us to share observations and questions. Beyond our users, our multi-faceted newsgathering operation is made up of a diverse collection of seasoned journalists who engage in spirited discussion and respectful disagreement to land in the best possible place. No one holds our journalists to higher standards than we do.
I understand that feedback from our consumers is more direct and faster than ever. And the idea of journalists engaging in discussion is not new. But we are seeing something different in journalism these days:
- We have a president engaging in unchecked social media unforeseen in prior administrations.
- We have a uniquely combattive atmosphere between the White House and the Press Corps.
- We have government officials calling any news report “fake” if it doesn’t subscribe to the administration’s talking points.
These differences in news coverage and news sources have changed the playing field. We need editors whose sole job it is to listen to readers, to question decisions made by news outlets and to question our leaders. It is imperative that the ombudsman come back.