Every few months, I receive e-mails from inside and outside NPR asking what it is I do and whether an ombudsman is effective in maintaining journalistic standards. It's a fair question and hard to answer in a few sentences. But it's worth reminding listeners, newly minted journalists, and me, what an ombudsman represents.
The word is Swedish. In the early 19th century, the Swedish government decided its citizens needed an agent or an advocate to break through the bureaucracy to fight for the rights of citizens.
The concept grew slowly, over the years, but today, many institutions have found value in having an ombudsman who can operate independent of management on behalf of the public. Some who have incorporated the role into their systems include governments, universities, hospitals and corporations. More than 500 ombudsmen organizations have joined forces to spread the word about the benefits to the public of having such a position.
A Growing Phenomenon
Inside a news organization, an ombudsman is there to get answers for listeners, viewers and readers. News ombudsmen (also known in newspapers as public editors or readers' representatives) investigate complaints and concerns about matters of accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste. The concept has been spreading in U.S. and overseas media, especially over the last few years.
News ombudsmanship is not new. It's been around since the 1920s. The Tokyo daily, Asahi Shimbun, established a committee in 1922 to receive and investigate reader complaints. Another mass circulation Tokyo paper, Yomiuri Shimbun, set up a staff committee in 1938 to monitor the paper's quality. In 1951, this group became an ombudsmen committee which today hears reader complaints about the paper and which meets daily with editors. At last report, these papers have a total of 18 ombudsmen who meet daily with the newspaper's editors!
In 1967, the Louisville Courier and the Louisville Journal were first newspapers in the United States to appoint readers' representatives. In Canada, The Toronto Star appointed an ombudsman in 1972. Today, there are more than 60 U.S. newspaper and broadcasting ombudsmen with another 40 overseas. News ombudsmen have had their own organization since 1980 that goes by the wonderful acronym of "ONO" (!) — The Organization of News Ombudsmen.
The number of news ombudsmen is growing with the fastest increase taking place abroad in Asia and in Latin America. Recently, one of India's leading daily newspapers, The Hindu, named an ombudsman, as has the Danish daily Politiken. Back in the USA, ESPN,The San Antonio Express and Getty Images, the photojournalism agency, have recently announced the appointment of ombudsmen.
The Ombudsman at NPR
NPR has had an ombudsman — the role I have been in — for six years. NPR was the first national broadcaster in the United States to create the position. Other broadcasters have decided that having someone to represent the public is a good idea. PBS and ESPN have created ombudsmen in a way similar to that of NPR. CBS, NBC and ABC have also appointed public representatives. The set-up is slightly different in commercial broadcasting, in that their ombudsmen operate inside — rather than outside — of management. At NPR and PBS, ombudsmen are independent of management.
So how should a concerned NPR listener make contact with the ombudsman and what happens with that communication?
First, a letter, e-mail or phone call arrives with a complaint or concern about something heard — or in the opinion of the complainant, something not heard — in an NPR story.
Second, I decide whether the comment should be forwarded to the appropriate program and journalist, and whether it is on an "fyi" basis, or whether it requires a response to the listener. As ombudsman, I have both the freedom and responsibility to make that judgment. Complaints that get the quickest response are those that are specific. General complaints about bias may be heartfelt, but are harder to handle. E-mails that are unsigned or that impugn an NPR employee will be deleted. Likewise, e-mails as part of a write-in campaign initiated by bloggers or advocacy groups will be noted, but unless they are specific, will not be answered either.
Third, if the complaint requires a response, the complainant is told that he or she should hear back from the journalist involved within a few days. The listener is advised to please let me know if the response is insufficient, and I will look further into the matter. I estimate that in 90 percent of all cases, the answer received by the listener from the journalist is satisfactory. The complainant may not be completely happy, but there is a shared understanding of what the journalist was trying to do and, for the most part, that is acceptable for the listener who filed the complaint.
Finally, if the listener is still unhappy with the response, I will investigate some more. The results are sent to the complainant, the journalist and to NPR management. Any changes that may result from the investigation are up to management to implement.
Some of the issues and investigations are included in my weekly online column. I've collected a number that look into a few of the more interesting complaints from listeners.
Does an Ombudsman Do Any Good?
Listeners tell me they think an ombudsman is good for NPR and for the news media in general (even if they don't always agree with NPR or with me). If the volume of e-mails is any indication, (more than 40,000 in 2005), the concept of using the Ombudsman as a path into NPR seems to be well established now.
It is also well established among the NPR journalists and managers. They are always (well, almost always) very forthcoming and open about answering any and all e-mails I send their way. I appreciate their patience and forbearance with my hectoring.
Some Other Questions from Listeners
• Does having an ombudsman always make for a guarantee of good journalism?
Even though there are more ombudsmen at more newspapers and broadcasters than ever before, there have also been more high-profile journalistic scandals as of late. NPR has avoided the fate of our colleagues at other news organizations. But an ombudsman is not a talisman, warding away the evils of plagiarism and other acts of journalistic impiety. To believe otherwise would be to engage in wishful thinking. Listeners tell me that as bad as the state of journalism appears to be, it could always be worse. Ombudsmen can act as a journalistic prophylaxis. But ombudsmen are no cure. However, their presence indicates that a news organization is prepared to take its obligations of public trust and accountability extremely seriously.
• How independent can an ombudsman be who is paid by his/her own news organization?
Until there is some disinterested party who is willing to pay, all news ombudsmen are obliged to receive their paychecks from their newspapers or broadcasters. The onus is on the ombudsman to prove to the listeners that he/she can still be equal opportunity shin-kicker — going after the journalists, the management and occasionally the listeners, as appropriate, even though we take the King's shilling.
• Speaking of shilling, can ombudsmen avoid the appearance of engaging in public relations for their news organizations?
At NPR, the ombudsman is apart from management, so I am under no obligation to defend the company as would others in management. I have made no secret of the fact that I admire NPR's journalism enormously, but it's not a case of "my news organization, right or wrong." My primary obligation remains to you, the listeners.