Looking Back, One Year Later

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 24, 2006

After my first year as The Post's ombudsman, readers deserve a report on my job as their representative.

The Post stylebook says that "Ombudsmen provide . . . newsroom managers with another set of skeptical eyes to search out human error and incompetence and another set of ears to lend to the masses."

These eyes and ears have gotten tens of thousands of comments and complaints. The most important part of this job is dealing with readers. Most of the complaints handled (I can't address them all) have been resolved satisfactorily or I have disagreed with the reader. Comments are shared with Post editors and reporters.

The Post is lucky to have a legion of readers who are smart, mostly civil, and passionate about the paper staying strong and being right. Those who call and write me include members of Congress and Pentagon officials, men and women in the military, Ralph Nader, and many citizens who care about their local government and schools -- plus a regular correspondent in her 90s.

They call and write to compliment, criticize and point out errors. Experts and academics love to spot factual errors. English teachers find grammar horrors. Sports fans point out mistakes in box scores.

I'm often asked how I am treated at The Post. Generally, well. Human nature being what it is, journalists don't always cheerfully accept criticism or complaint. But I know no one at The Post who doesn't care deeply about good journalism and the paper's vitality.

Another FAQ: What do I think of The Post? It's a first-class newspaper. This country has very few newspapers to equal it. But if it were perfect, it wouldn't need an ombudsman; it is to The Post's credit that it has one.

In Howell's hierarchy of significance, news tips and compliments are always welcome, but readers who call or write about errors of fact get my immediate attention. Next are allegations of bias or that a story had important omissions. I talk to reporters and their editors and do my own research. The conclusions may end up in a column or go into my weekly staff newsletter, in which I report what readers are saying and what I think about it. Or I may have a chat with an editor or a reporter if something is awry. Readers usually hear how I've handled their comments.

Some readers mistakenly think that the ombudsman can force change on The Post, its editorial policy or what columnists write. My job is not to tell the editorial board what to write, and I wouldn't presume to tell David S. Broder what to say about politics. Columnists own their space. If they make a mistake, let me know, but the opinions are theirs alone.

As an independent contractor, I do not take part in newsroom decisions. But I do make frequent suggestions to editors and reporters, and most often I get a willing ear.

Allegations of bias are difficult. My mail reflects the partisan divide in the country, with conservatives and liberals frustrated and angry. Readers of dissimilar political persuasions will see the same set of facts differently and may read something into a story that isn't there.

The ease with which journalists can be attacked has left some reporters and editors unwilling to engage with readers. That's understandable when the attack is vicious or obscene. But engaging with readers helps journalists understand their audience.

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