For Ombudsmen, an Evolving Mission

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, May 27, 2007

Ombudsmen, not fully trusted either by journalists or readers, are right in the middle of the daily fray of not just what readers may think is wrong with The Post but also the swelling waves that are changing journalism.

So readers may want to know what 45 of us from around the world heard last week at the annual Organization of News Ombudsmen conference -- that's ONO or OH! NO! to some -- at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. One-third were American. Many U.S. newspapers have dispensed with ombudsmen, usually because of budget cuts.

We talked about new reader challenges and how to keep our sanity and equanimity when caught between angry readers and angry newspaper staffers. Many ombudsmen report directly to an editor or publisher. Few are independent contractors, as is the case at The Post.

The keynote speaker, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian newspaper in London, put it well: "Various technological and economic forces are bearing down on what we do so forcefully and, frankly, so fast, that the very nature of journalism is being challenged in fundamental ways."

His talk looked back to how we were formed: "Since a free press first evolved we have derived our authority from a feeling -- a sense, a pretense -- that journalism is, if not infallible, something close to it. We speak of ourselves as being interested in the truth, the real truth. We're truth seekers, we're truth tellers, and we tell truth to power."

And he told newspapers to buck up and do right. Journalists "are just going to have to grow up and, like big boys and girls, take it on the chin." He said readers' "trust has to be re-earned all the time . . . not only in the brand, but in each and every single piece of copy."

Rusbridger said "that the public at large [has] a rather more honest assessment of what journalism is than we give them credit for . . . surveys capture a rather sophisticated sense of what we do -- which in the privacy of the newsroom, or the pub, we know ourselves, but which we think we're keeping secret from everyone else. This pretense," he said, "is no longer sustainable."

Readers have many independent ways to verify a newspaper's version of what happened, he said. "There are millions of fact checkers out there . . . and some . . . know far more than we do . . . So we can refuse systematically to correct or clarify our journalism, but we would be foolish to imagine that it will therefore go uncorrected or unclarified. It will: All that will happen is that it will take place elsewhere."

Rusbridger urged much more openness to readers and the admission that journalism "is something more fluid, a much more iterative thing than the tablet of stone. It is about us saying 'this is how it seems to us; it's not the definitive word on the subject by any means; some of you will know more about this; we can collaborate to try and get closer to the truth on this story; this is how you can contribute.' " He cautioned: "Always be uneasy at grandiose boasts that we're revealing The Truth." He thought it better for journalists to admit what we don't know as well as what we do know.

Then he quoted a speech Post columnist David S. Broder made 30 years ago: "I would like to see us say over and over until the point has been made . . . that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we heard about in the past 24 hours . . . distorted despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you . . . to read it in about an hour. If we labeled the paper accurately then we would immediately add: But it's the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected, updated version."

"It still strikes me" Rusbridger said, "as the best description of what a newspaper is. And is, even more so today. The greater the speed required of us in the digital world -- and speed does matter, but never at the expense of accuracy or fairness or anything which would imperil trust -- the more we should be honest about the tentative nature of what is possible."

He's right about that. He also had a good description of part of the ombudsman's role: "They explain us to them, and them to us. Sometimes they manage the even harder job of explaining us to us."

Panelists thought the watchdog role of journalists (and ombudsmen) can be combined with the public and bloggers. One panelist, Jeff Jarvis, a former newspaperman and magazine editor and now a blogger, said, "Anyone can perform an act of journalism. How do we [readers and journalists] together learn more?"

Bill Kovach, founding director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and a respected former editor and Nieman curator, thinks "the potential could not be greater" for journalists to see themselves as educators and to teach readers how to document facts. "We can make the public smarter."

Jarvis thinks all ombudsmen ought to blog. His blog is at http://buzzmachine.com. He said bloggers "distrust the institutional voice and trust more the human voice. The more we represent that personal voice, the better."

That caught me up short. I got a laugh at the meeting when I said, "I hardly have time to go to the bathroom. Start a blog?" Instead of responding to 600 letters, he said "a blog post is more efficient and adds to the conversation." I'll think about it.

In the meantime, the meeting stimulated this ombudsman to not just be the complaint department but to also help readers and staffers surf those waves without drowning the best in journalism.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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