They perform a variety of functions and are not always met with enthusiasm. News ombudsmen act as mediators between readers and journalists, trying to make each group understand the other and pursuing the general goal of raising journalistic quality. Some 40 years ago, the first ombudsman took up his job.
There are a number of ombudsmen in many parts of the world. However, they tend to have a much higher profile in Anglo-Saxon countries, plus Sweden, than in most European and Latin American countries. The first ombudsman took up his job 40 years ago in the USA, working both for the Courier-Journal in Kentucky and The Louisville Times. Now, as then, an ombudsman’s job mainly consists of reacting to criticism voiced by readers and acting as a mediator between them and the paper targeted by that criticism. This often involves explaining to the public the inner workings of journalism as well as directly interfering with the work of editorial staffs, making ombudsmen act both as the “public conscience” of journalism, and as professional coaches for the journalists, whose work they try to improve by way of constructive criticism.
Whereas ombudsmen normally are supposed to watch over and guarantee journalistic quality, they often don’t live up to that expectation. A new study currently conducted at the European Journalism Observatory (EJO) in Lugano, Switzerland, promises to shed new light on the issue and to provide a more detailed analysis. For the first time, every ombudsman who could be located in Europe as well as in North and South America has been contacted and sent a detailed questionnaire; 50 of them have answered, making the response rate of 60 per cent. Using a framework developed by media researchers Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini, the EJO study aims at comparing ombudsmen in three different regions: Anglo-Saxon countries (USA, Canada, the UK and Ireland); Central and Northern Europe (Denmark, Germany, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland); and Latin countries, both in Southern and Western Europe (France, Portugal, Spain) and parts of Latin America (Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Columbia and Venezuela – see list below).
Despite the fact that the journalistic institution of ombudsman has been around for 40 years now, having proved in many instances to be an effective instrument for mediation between journalists and their audiences, the total number of ombudsmen is still very modest, both inside and outside the USA. Yet, they do have some clout, particularly in the US, because the 35 ombudsmen working there 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 “reader representative“ or “public editor” (as in the case of the New York Times), and several studies published in the USA indicate that this institution does have a positive effect on both the credibility and the overall quality of the newspapers that make use of it. However, apart from a few passing remarks on the existence of “a handful of ombudsmen in Europe and South America”, the rest of the world has been widely ignored by US researchers.
But are ombudsmen really just a marginal group outside the USA? And how do differences in journalistic culture affect the way ombudsmen fill out their role in different parts of the world?
The ombudsmen that do exist in Central and Northern Europe are usually veteran journalists who can look back on decades of on-the-job experience; and with an average age of 67 years, they are either retired or at least approaching the end of their professional careers. For a long time, this was equally true of the situation in Anglo-Saxon countries, where the function of ombudsman was also fulfilled by long-term practitioners of the field – usually journalists with “no prospects for making it to the management level” – who would take on the job as a “last stop on their way to retirement”, according to Neil Nemeth. Nemeth’s study on ombudsmen in the USA (2003) represents the most comprehensive so far. In the last few years, however, a process of rejuvenation has taken place in the USA, where the job of ombudsman is becoming more of a stepping stone to more ambitious career goals. As a case in point, people like Ben Bagdikian, Joann Byrd and Geneva Overholser, who all served as ombudsmen at the Washington Post – arguably the most important paper in the USA with a long tradition of employing ombudsmen on limited contracts – 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: the function of ombudsman is increasingly performed by women – which, incidentally, hasn’t changed the job title, as alternatives such as “ombudswoman” or the neutral “ombudsperson” haven’t taken root so far. In Anglo-Saxon countries, almost 40 per cent of all ombudsmen are women – compared to a modest four per cent in Latin states and in Central and Northern Europe (Editor’s note: based on those who answered the questionnaires; the French newspaper Le Monde has appointed recently a female ombudsman who did not participate in the survey).
Regarding equal opportunities, the situation in Europe and Latin America today resembles the US state of affairs of some 20 years ago. Remarkable, indeed, given the fact that in many other fields in Europe mediating roles have long been filled by women, because of their usually less argumentative, more diplomatic approach.
All ombudsmen agree that the latest technologies have substantially improved their communication with the public. Emails have become the primary means of direct exchange with the readers, with over 98 per cent of all ombudsmen using them regularly. Again, it is most actively used in Anglo-Saxon countries, where an average of 50 reader emails reaches ombudsmen every day – while in Europe and Latin America the equivalent number is 15 to 20. Moreover, ombudsmen in the US, UK and Canada employ other means of communication more frequently as well, such as meeting individual journalists, participating in editorial conferences, issuing regular progress reports and, increasingly, using blogs and chat rooms for an interactive exchange with their paper’s readers. More importantly, they are generally the most independent. This is highlighted by the fact that none of the respondents see anything wrong with criticizing their own newspaper whenever necessary – whereas 16 per cent of the ombudsmen working in Central and Northern Europe and 18 per cent of those based in Latin countries indicated that they were not in a position to do so.
Again, it seems that in Anglo-Saxon countries the position of ombudsman simply entails more than in other parts of the world – a difference not only attributable to the longer history ombudsmen have had in those countries, but also to differences in journalistic culture.
Like many other professions, the job of ombudsman is undergoing a steady process of professionalization, which in the USA simply has had more time to take effect. Since in the US there is a number of other media watchdogs, as well as an extensive field of media-journalism, people simply seem better prepared to deal with all forms of (self-)criticism. In addition, ombudsmen are important for educating readers on what is and isn’t journalistic quality, thus acting as journalism’s “conscience” – whereas elsewhere their role tends to be limited to that of mere mediators between readers and journalists; a situation that calls for a change. A knowledgeable patient, who might not always make a doctor’s life easier, still tends to live a healthier, more responsible life than a medical ignoramus. In a similar way a “media savvy” reader with a sound understanding of how journalism works, despite being more demanding, also plays a vital role in raising the general quality of journalism.
In view of differences in journalistic culture, three separate regions are being analysed:
1.Central and Northern Europe (Denmark, Germany, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland),
2.Latin countries, consisting of Western and Southern Europe (France, Portugal, Spain) and Latin America (Brazil, Ecuador, Columbia, Mexico, Venezuela) and
3.Anglo-Saxon countries (UK, Ireland, Canada, USA).
In Austria there are four ombudsmen, but their job does not include mediating in case of complaints. In Sweden, too, the Press Ombudsman function is slightly different since he is appointed by the government. These 5 ombudsmen have not been taken into account in the empirical analysis of the data.
•ETTEMA, James E. und Theodore GLASSER (1987). “Public Accountability or Public Relations? Newspaper Ombudsmen Define Their Role.” Journalism Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 1: 3-12.
•NEMETH, Neil (2003). News ombudsmen in North America: Assessing an experiment in social responsibility. Westport: Praeger.
•Website ORGANIZATION OF NEWS OMSBUDSMEN: http://www.newsombudsmen.org
(Editors note: The study, conducted by Cristina Elia at the European Journalism Observatory, was finished and accepted as a doctoral dissertation in June 2007. It is available in full length on our Italian website: Link)
Translation: Oliver Heinemann