Mediator and Arbiter on a Delicate Mission

October 15, 2007 • Ethics and Quality • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, October 5, 2007

The institution of the news ombudsman, that mediates between readers and newsrooms, has been around for more or less 40 years. In the U.S. there has been more independence treating delicate cases.

The New York Times shares the fate of all ”tops of the class”, i.e. everybody knows they can’t really compete– which makes people all the keener on teasing them! That may be one of  the reasons why,  the paper that is famous for being such a stickler for the highest of journalistic standards has been recently attacked with unabashed gloating by other media.

The latest case in point: the discount it has offered to a left-leaning organisation for a campaign ad. What for most media simply would mean ‘business as usual’ was decried as the worst of sins when it involved the world’s most prestigious newspaper.
One of those people who often help defuse, but sometimes also exacerbate, such crises, is Clark Hoyt. In May 2007, Hoyt took up his job as Public Editor of the New York Times. Given the ensuing series of scandals surrounding that paper, he has indeed been busy. He represents something like the ‘public conscience’ of the New York Times, which means he is in charge of handling reader complaints and writes a weekly column where he discusses the most pressing issues. Internally, he is the paper’s quality expert, bringing his influence to bear on editorial staff management, drawing journalists’ attention to erroneous reports –  both in an attempt to help improve overall journalistic quality. External to the publication he acts as watchdog, mediator and arbiter. Regarding the contested ad, Hoyt received some 4.000 emails sent by readers who were furious about the whole affair. Overall, Hoyt agreed with them, arguing forcefully that the New York Times’ advertising department had damaged the paper’s reputation by granting that discount.

Hoyt is one of roughly 90 news ombudsmen worldwide. The public listings of ombudsmen tend to be the highest in Anglo-American countries, but there are also a few of them in continental Europe, for example in Switzerland, as well as in Latin America.

Forty years ago, the very first of them took up his job in the USA, working for the Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times in Kentucky.

While ombudsmen can make an important contribution to journalistic quality, they often fulfill that potential only partially. This is the outcome of a new study recently finished at the European Journalism Observatory (EJO) in Lugano, Switzerland. For the first time, every ombudsman that could be traced in Europe and the Americas had been contacted and sent a detailed questionnaire. Fifty of them replied, which accounts for a response rate of 60 per cent.

Although ombudsmen have managed to mediate conflicts successfully on a number of occasions thus sparing their publishers the costs of going to court, they remain something of a rarity –  even in the US, where they have always had the greatest impact. There are 35 of them in the States, but despite their small number they do have some clout as they hold posts at the papers with the largest circulation, among them USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. In all, 38 per cent of US newspaper readers have ‘their own’ ombudsman, also referred to as ‘readers’ representative’ or ‘public editor’ (as in the case of the New York Times).

Several US studies indicate that this institution does have a very positive effect on both the credibility and the overall quality of the newspapers that make use of it. However, those studies widely ignore what is happening in the rest of the world. Which raises the question as to whether ombudsmen are really just a marginal group outside the USA, and whether and how differences in journalistic culture affect the public perception of that institution.

Europe and Latin America lagging behind
The few ombudsmen that do exist in Central and Northern Europe are usually veteran journalists who can look back on decades of hands-on experience. And with an average age of 68 years, they are either retired or approaching the end of their professional careers. Yet in the US, the job of ombudsman is becoming more of a stepping-stone to more ambitious goals, rather than being the last rung of one’s career ladder.

What follows next? To give an example, in the case of the Washington Post – the most important US paper with a long tradition of employing ombudsmen since 1970 –the former ombudsmen like Ben Bagdikian, Joann Byrd and Geneva Overholser, all went on to become lecturers at prestigious universities. Here they could  make full use of their experience as professional mediators. Another difference between the Old and the New World: in Anglo-American countries, women account for 40 per cent of the function of ombudsman. This percentage that stands as low as 6 per cent in other regions, including Europe which, incidentally, seems all the more noteworthy, given that in other business sectors women, because of their diplomatic skills, have acted as professional mediators for a long time.
In the US, over 80 per cent of all ombudsmen work on a full-time contract, whereas in other regions this number drops as low as 30 per cent. This possibly is an indication that in the States the job is held in higher esteem, and therefore could develop accordingly.

Around 90 per cent of ombudsmen communicate directly with the public, usually via their own columns, allowing them to make journalistic decisions more transparent and helping readers better understand the inner workings of journalism. It is quite astounding that Central and Northern Europe seem particularly worse off in that respect – also in comparison to Latin countries both in Europe and America – with over 20 percent of all ombudsmen having no special platform of communication at all, making them far less visible for their readers.

However, ombudsmen working in Anglo-American countries enjoy a remarkable degree of independence, which is highlighted by the fact that none of the respondents saw anything wrong with criticizing, whenever necessary, their own newspaper. In contrast, 16 per cent of the ombudsmen working in Central and Northern Europe, and 18 per cent of those based in Latin countries said they didn’t have the necessary scope for that.

This is where an ombudsman may become a liability, especially if he or she feels the urge to raise their own profile  at the cost of the paper and publisher they work for. A situation that is likely to lead to a showdown, as happened in the case of Byron Calame, Hoyt’s predecessor at the New York Times. On one particularly rowdy occasion last spring, Calame presented both his editor-in-chief Bill Keller and his publisher Arthur Sulzberger with a catalogue of 28 questions – only to later use his column to attack them publicly for not answering.

For Brent Cunningham, who observes the US media scene for the Columbia Journalism Review, ombudsmen are, nevertheless, a blessing because they ‘help de-mystify the Press for the average reader’. It bespeaks generosity and perspective that the New York Times has kept its public editor – despite all the heated internal debates stirred up by Calame’s capers.

Cristina Elia/Stephan Russ-Mohl

Reference: Elia, Cristina (2007). Gli ombudsman dei giornali come strumento di gestione della qualità giornalistica. Lugano: Università della Svizzera italiana.


Translation: Oliver Heinemann
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