Death of the ombud? Only in Canada

Jeffrey DvorkinNews orgs overseas are hiring staff news ombuds in increasing numbers these days, writes Jeffrey Dvorkin. But here in Canada, six positions have been axed, leaving only the Toronto Star and CBC with news ombuds on staff. What gives?

Are news ombuds an endangered specied. In North America, the answer now seems to be yes.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I agreed in May to become the first executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in the midst of the largest economic downturn in the history of journalism.

Only a few years ago, newspapers and broadcasters around the US and Canada would point to their in-house ombuds (aka readers’ editor or public editor) as an example of openness and transparency with their readers, viewers and listeners.

In case the term is unfamiliar, whatever the position is called, the role of an ombudsman is essentially the same: to deal fairly and openly with public complaints to a news organization. An ombudsman is the in-house critic who is independent of management. His or her findings are always made public. Usually the position is for a limited term and many news organizations make it a condition of employment that the ombudsman may not be rehired to another position in order to guarantee the ombudsman’s independence and credibility.
But with the financial crisis of the past year, ombudsmen have been considered a luxury that struggling media organizations can ill afford. In the United States, 14 ombuds position have been abolished in the last year. In Canada, six positions have been axed, leaving only the Toronto Star and CBC/SRC with staff ombuds.

Yet surveys conducted by news councils and the ONO have shown that a news organization with an ombuds have more credibility than those that don’t. A similar conclusion was reached in a study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).  And the Iowa Libel Research Project conducted an analysis of complaints to newspapers over a 15-year period that showed how harried and defensive editors who handled public complaints resulted in more lawsuits compared to an ombudsman who handled the calls.

If that weren’t enough, a study by The Guardian showed that hiring a readers’ editor reduced legal costs to the newspaper by 30%, more than paying for the salary of two people – the readers’ editor and an assistant.

Despite that evidence, newspapers and broadcasters in North America started targeting their ombudsmen even before the recent financial troubles.

According to the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 2006, editors were already casting a gimlet eye on their in-house critic: “The ombudsman’s role ran ‘out of gas,'” says Allan Mayer, editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Journal. ‘We worry about credibility every day,’ says Winnipeg Free Press editor Bob Cox, ‘but we’re not going to appoint one person to fix it. It has to be a part of the newspaper’s culture.'”   

Often the reason given for abandoning the position is credited to (or blamed on) the Internet. Some editors think that blogs and media critics can do as good a job of holding a news organization accountable. In some cases, this may be true. But in my experience, accountability requires a systematic approach to complaints, combined with an ability to know the newsroom culture, and then have the capacity to make an independent judgment about a legitimate complaint.

Fortunately, some significant journalistic players in the U.S. continue to buck the trend and maintain the position of public ombudsman. These include the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, NPR, PBS, The New York Times and ABC News.  

Even more optimistically, it is overseas where increasing numbers of ombudsmen can be found. Ombudsmen in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and India are being hired. News organizations in Lebanon, Morocco, East Africa and Taiwan, among other countries, have asked ONO to send its members to help establish the position. The need is compelling in these places because ombudsmanship is seen as an essential aspect of independent and self-regulating journalism, and the basis for effective democratic institutions.

The challenge for ONO – a thirty-year old organization – is to renew itself in this rapidly evolving media landscape. ONO needs to continue to support its members who are in-house ombuds and at the same time identify and support the best of those independent and often contrarian media critics who increasingly inhabit the web.   

The challenge for all media organizations is to understand the value that an independent public ombudsman can offer by creating a less-defensive atmosphere inside a newsroom and helping the public understand better what constitutes essential and excellent journalism.

Jeffrey Dvorkin’s career  in broadcasting includes many years at the CBC, where he was managing editor of radio news among other positions, and at National Public Radio, where he was vice-president of news and information, and later ombudsman. He also served as executive director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He is currently the Rogers Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at Ryerson University and executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO).