The Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) met this past week in London to celebrate its 25th anniversary. The gathering observed that we are larger in number than ever and that our growth has been especially rapid in Latin America. Ombudsmen are seen more and more as essential in democratic societies because they reinforce the role the media play in guaranteeing democratic values through transparent journalism.
At ONO, we are grateful that newspapers and broadcasters value the role of ombudsmen. ONO now has close to 100 members. That's not a lot considering the mass of media outlets. But we have grown quickly over the past few years, in part to deal with recent high-profile gaffes and failures in journalism, in both print and broadcasting.
The meeting is an annual conference that has a tradition of being held alternately in the United States and overseas -- but that tradition seems about to change, for some interesting reasons I will explain in a moment.
Our Gracious Hosts
The conference was hosted by The Guardian (a longtime stalwart of ombudsmanship). I had the honor to be ONO's president for the past year. Now the presidency of ONO goes to The Guardian's Ian Mayes, that newspaper's readers' representative. If the London conference was anything to go by, he'll do a great job.
The conference was interesting at a number of levels.
We heard from the BBC that it has decided to acknowledge the need for greater public accountability (not with an ombudsman but with a management shakeup).
We heard from Mark Brayne, a former BBC correspondent who left the ranks to become a psychologist dealing with journalistic trauma. His organization, the DART Center (see Web Resources, below) has pioneered the recognition that war correspondents often struggle alone with the aftermath of their experiences. Brayne spoke of news management's failure to deal with this, which he attributed in part to management's unwavering focus on getting the story, often regardless of the cost to reporters.
We heard from photographers who covered the tsunami, and saw the photographs they took, and we discussed the limits of visual acceptability with Eamonn McCabe, who shot and edited many of the photos seen around the world. All the photos were horrific, but we were shown ones that were deemed too grim for English-language and French newspapers but which were, for some reason, perfectly acceptable in German and Italian papers.
We heard about the legal challenges to journalism and ombudsmen from Web sites and bloggers from an extremely wise and experienced London lawyer, named Mark Stephens. It's worth noting that the remarkable name of his law firm is Finers, Stephens, Innocent.
NPR Listeners and 'Guardian' Readers
We celebrated our journalistic similarities and challenges even as the cultural differences among us were the subject of endless discussion: What works in America doesn't work in Europe, Australia or Latin America. And vice versa.
As the ombudsman for NPR's listeners, I have noted that The Guardian's Web site coverage is frequently held up as an example for NPR. Interestingly enough, The Guardian has more Web site readers than paid readers of the newspaper. Most of its online readers are in the United States!
In fact, many listeners wrote over the past week to point out that The Guardian (and not NPR) had reported fully on the Downing Street memo that stated that the British government indeed spun intelligence reports to garner support for U.S. policy in Iraq.
NPR News has not reported this story in any depth (trust me -- the story is huge in the United Kingdom), although the redoubtable Dan Schorr finally referred to the memo on Weekend Edition Sunday (see story, below).
This was interesting in light of the BBC's acknowledgment that its original reporting on the story was sufficiently flawed to make the BBC consider appointing an ombudsman -- or a managerial equivalent. Even if the original story by reporter Andrew Gilligan may have been flawed, it also may have been accurate in part, much to the consternation of the Blair government, and the confusion of many in the British and American public.
ONO Gets Bigger
NPR listeners might be interested to know that ONO also dealt with the thorny issue of the application for ONO membership by the two ombudsmen recently appointed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) -- one for the left and one for the right.
(CPB is the congressionally mandated funding arm for public broadcasting).
After some debate about whether ombudsmen can or should have any political affiliation, ONO decided unanimously (with one abstention -- mine) that the two CPB ombudsmen will be invited to join -- not as full members but as nonvoting associate members. Also in the interest of full disclosure, I recused myself from chairing any sessions where this was discussed.
A More International ONO
Finally, the tradition of alternating ONO conferences between the United States and abroad was broken at this meeting.
ONO initially was an overwhelmingly American organization. As recently as seven years ago, more than 80 percent of ONO members came from the United States. But over the past few years, ombudsmanship has grown rapidly in Europe and, especially, in Latin America. Half of ONO's members now represent non-American media.
Mike Arrieta-Walden, ombudsman for The Portland Oregonian and ONO vice president for the coming year, had offered to host next year's conference and the ONO board had agreed. But in a last-minute outburst of democracy, the conference was asked to consider a proposal from Marcelo Beraba, ombudsman for the daily Folha de Sao Paulo. He offered to host the conference next year in Brazil, and the idea met with overwhelming approval. Arrieta-Walden graciously agreed to this change.
Ombudsmanship has grown in the United States over the past few years. The addition of Dan Okrent of The New York Times (among others) to our ranks has given ONO a needed and higher public profile. Even though Okrent's 18-month tenure as ombudsman has ended, the Times has already named his replacement -- Barney Calame, from The Wall Street Journal.
Fertile Ground at Home and Abroad?
But the growth in Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Venezuela has been astounding. Holding a conference in Brazil is a simple recognition of that fact.
Many of the U.S. ombudsmen worried that their employers would be less than enthusiastic about paying their fare to Brazil (instead of to Portland) at a time when many newspapers are experiencing sharp circulation declines. It's a legitimate concern and one that ONO needs to address, in part by assuring our respective media that we will definitely be back in the United States in 2007.
There may be other benefits to the Brazil conference: If the London meeting was any indication, getting away for a few days may be one of the most useful ways of seeing the journalistic complexities back home with greater clarity.