Ombudswhat?!

In one of my journalism lectures, the topic of discussion was ombudsman, or public editors. For those of you who do not know what an ombudsman is, it is a person who investigates complaints and decides on fair settlement, especially between upset and angry parties, like organizations or institutions.

Here is a quick history of how an ombudsman came to be…

-In 1809, the first ombudsman appeared in Sweden.

– In 1967, the first press ombudsman appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal and Louisville Times

– In 1970, Richard Harwood, of the Washington Post, was the first ombudsman with a public column.

– An ombudsman’s three main functions consists of listening to the readers, writing a daily bulletin that criticizes the paper and preparing a weekly column to be published.

Public Editors have their up points as well as their low points. According to the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, public editors went from being a figure in the newsroom that was used on occasion when something was going ethically wrong to being “attacked” with e-mails that are aimed at the newspaper’s political point of view.

Ombudsman Michael Getler of The Washington Post states that he sometimes receives 1,000 plus e-mails. “It takes a lot of time just to kill stuff that’s not remotely relevant to our job. So e-mail is a negative in that sense, unless you have a staff that can go through these things and weed them out. But if you’re by yourself, it’s a huge additional demand on your time just to sort things out,” said Getler. For example, New York Time’s former public editor Daniel Okrent, had an assistant, Arthur Bovino, to help him read and sort through the load of emails received each day.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman for National Public Radio since February 2000, states that in his opinion public editors are a way to “become a real agent of the listeners.” A positive that an ombudsman brings to journalism is that its job is to advance the quality of news reporting by monitoring truthfulness , equality and balance.  Also, an ombudsman is used to increase the awareness of news professionals about the public’s concerns. “Boosting standards and reaching out to readers remain the two main reasons news organizations appoint reader representatives,” stated within the article The Ombudsman Puzzle by Jennifer Dorroh.

So far an ombudsman sounds great. They provide individual attention to the viewers, address their concerns as well as problems and provide an opinion of the paper in general while also inserting comments and apprehensions of the viewers.

So why are there so few ombudsmen?

Well you could have guessed it; the current status of the economy is a sure give away, money! When an organization begins to consider hiring an ombudsman they must first consult the Organization of News Ombudsman—ONO, which is a professional organization with U.S. and international members. Gina Lubran, ONO’s executive secretary, says “financial constraints often prevent news organizations from creating the position.”

Dorroh reports within her article that when public editors were surveyed in 1999, an average salary earned was between $75,000 and $100,000. Most news outlets would rather spend that money on hiring reporters or, if able, not use the money at all.

Well that of course is not the only reason. Many reporters and editors feel that addressing the viewers themselves is a part of responsible journalism. When you are journalist are even learning about it in journalism school, you are taught to be transparent, that is telling your audience what exactly you know as well as don’t know.  Also, some news organizations as well as the general public may feel that an ombudsman is a way to avoid taking direct responsibility of a specific action.

Here is an example of when an ombudsman comes into play in a newspaper organization:

In this Washington Post article, Army Maj. Alan G. Rogers was killed by a makeshift explosive device in Baghdad on January 27. This article talks about how Rogers was portrayed by many as an honorable, intelligent, gifted person who saved the lives of two others by forfeiting his for their safety.  The article states that the Army officer was awarded a Purple Heart along with his second Bronze Star. The Washington Post described this man as good-hearted, well-rounded, admirable American who deserved the praise he received. What the Washington Post did fail to mention was his sexual orientation, which was that he was gay and also took part in many local gay veteran circles.

In response the Washington Blade responded by saying “Media, military kept solider in closet after death.” Within this article it went on to discuss the local groups Rogers was involved in, which also included his involvement with the group that works to overturn “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” The Washington Blade suggested that there was clear evidence that Roger was “openly gay” and that the Post’s article should have included his sexual orientation because that is who he was.

Deborah Howell, Washington Post’s ombudsman, responded to Washington Blade by saying that there was no way to tell if Roger’s wanted his sexual orientation to be mentioned. Howell also went on to say that his sexual orientation was “not important,” and the Post’s article portrayed him as who he was, a proud solider who was commendable in every way. Howell went further o to explain that the ultimate decision of what was to be published was made by Executive Editor Len Downie, who said that there “was no proof that Rogers was gay and no clear indication that, if he was, he wanted the information public.” It is also stated in the article that Downie’s ruling followed Post’s policy- “A person’s sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless relevant to the story.”

I personally agree with the Washington Post’s ombudsman Deborah Howell. I feel and believe that Rogers’s sexual orientation did not make him do the things he did as a soldier. It was reported in all articles that Rogers had given his life to save the lives of two others and in my opinion that is the bigger story. A young, intelligent and brave man sacrificed his own life to help the lives of others. Inserting the fact that he was gay does not alter the story or his actions in any way. Also, it is no one’s place to publicly announce an individual’s sexual preference, which is a private matter, whether the person is alive or has passed on. I think the Post did a fine job in being cautious as well as sensitive to the situation. Rogers is remembered for the man he is and the courageous act he displayed.

Image Credit: Greenberg Art

Image Credit: Greenberg Art

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