The ombudsman as internal critic

(The following presentation was made in June 1994 at a symposium titled “Press Regulation: How far has it come?” in Seoul, Korea. The symposium was presented by the International Communication Research Institute, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and the Citizens’ Coalition for Media Watch. The Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. and Korea Press Center were hosts. Among the participants were Joann Byrd, ombudsman for The Washington Post; Richard P. Cunningham, professor, New York University; Lynne Enders Glaser, ombudsman, The Fresno Bee; Arthur C. Nauman, ombudsman, The Sacramento Bee; and William Morgan, ombudsman, Canadian Broadcasting Corp.)

By Joann Byrd
All rights reserved

It is a thrill to be in Korea for the first time, and to be part of this important symposium. I want to thank our hosts and all of you who are participating. By the time I leave here, I will have had once-in-a-lifetime experiences and will have learned a great deal.

I want to talk today about the ombudsman’s role as internal critic. There are two reasons for that. First, I do the other tasks you expect of a news ombudsman, but my primary assignment at The Post is critic. And second, I happen to think it’s the most influential part of the ombudsman’s work.

Since I’m first a critic, I love a character that cartoonist Jeff McNelly drew for the ombudsman at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in Minnesota. In the artist’s rendering, the ombudsman is an “ombuzzard.”

A buzzard is a kind of hawk, a vulture who is ruthless and preys on others. The mean bird Mr. McNelly drew is the perfect picture of an in-house critic. I begged a copy of it and have it displayed in my office window.

I scour the paper for four or five hours every day with a pen in my hand. It takes me nine hours to critique the Sunday paper.

When I’m done reading and marking up the paper, I have individual conversations with editors and reporters, or I send individual notes or torn-up pages of the paper to staff members involved.

Or I save up examples of flaws or problems and gather them together in a huge memo that goes out periodically to the whole staff and to the executives of the company.

When the subject is one I think is of interest to the general public, or a topic on which I get a lot of calls, I take it up in my Sunday column on the editorial page.

You have heard from my colleagues about how important independence is to the ombudsman’s position. Nowhere is independence more valuable than when the ombudsman is acting as the internal critic.

And The Washington Post ombudsman position is the model of independence. I am not an employee, but serve a two-year contract as an independent agent. My contract can be renewed for a maximum of two more years. I have just agreed to stay for one more year.

When I leave the ombudsman job, I cannot ever work for The Washington Post Co. again. The purpose of that is that I will not be inclined to praise The Post in hopes of getting a staff job with the paper when I’m finished.

I get no suggestions and virtually no feedback from the leadership of The Washington Post. They feel so strongly that I must be independent that they never tell me if they like something I do, or if they hate it. The people who complain or compliment me on my work are middle-level editors or reporters and photographers.

No one seems my internal critiques before they go to the whole staff. The only person who sees my Sunday column is a copy editor who is allowed to work only on my spelling and my grammar.

I cannot be fired for what I write.

And I have no authority except whatever moral authority comes with the job. I never see a story or a picture before it appears in the paper. I do watch most story conferences, where the editors decide what will go on the front pag.e But I don’t say a word until I have the paper in my hands. I see it the same time Post subscribers do.

I think the ombudsman’s independence is important for credibility with the newspaper’s readers.

But I really appreciate it for another reason: It’s much easier to ask the dumb questions and to see the flawed assumptions if you are not involved in making the decisions. I don’t think any of us can be objective about our own work.

The ombudsman can bring to the news operation what an editor can bring to a story: a fresh set of eyes that can spot things the person doing the work can’t see.

When I was executive editor of The Herald in Everett, Wash. — in the far northwewst corner of the United States — I wrote a column claiming that newspapers should not have ombudsmen. I argued that the ombudsman just gets between the staff and their readers. I guess The Post didn’t read my columns in 1984.

But I changed my mind when I discovered the value of detachment.

Insiders are inescapably biased. As the editor of the paper, I worked hard to be conscious of my prejudices. I wanted to remember that I hold assumptions and points of view that I needed to discount when I evaluated our work.

But the truth is that my paper did things the way we did them because that’s how I thought they should be done. Even if I tried not to be, I was defensive.

The ombudsman sees the results of the decisions — much more like a reader does. And the ombudsman knows only a little more than readers do about the preconceptions and theories and reasons for a judgment.

The most principled editor or reporter in the world simply does not have the benefit of that kind of distance.

I think that in critiquing the paper and evaluating the decision-making, the ombudsman is at the same time acting as an in- house philosopher.

The ombudsman is the newspaper’s hired conscience.

The ombudsman’s territory is, by my definition, journalism ethics.

To my way of thinking, the standards and ideals of American journalism all fall under one overriding ethical obligation. And that obligation follows from this: Publishing a newspaper is an implied promise to work in the public interest.

I am obsessed with journalism ethics, so when I evaluate the paper, I do it through an ethical lens.

Some decisions have a stronger ethical component than others. But to me, it’s all about ethics: The newspaper can cause great good and great harm, and everything the newspaper does affects other people.

As much as anything else, I want to help journalists examine the ethical dimension of all their decisions. So I always want to know how the journalist came to a decision — what thinking they went through. And I also want to look at the consequences of the decision.

I sometimes think I act as the ethics police. Internally, and with individuals on the staff, I constantly raise what I think are ethical issues. When I complain in writing about the decision-making or the result, I enforce ethical standards the way the police do when they arrest people or give them parking tickets.

The purpose of any criticism ought to be to improve the practice of journalism, and any valid criticism has to judge the work against standards and ideals. The ombudsman becomes the in-house philosopher by articulating those measures.

We might not have universal agreement in the U.S. about the standards of journalism, and every newspaper is free to write and follow its own code of conduct. But we have at least common accord on the ideals of journalism in the U.S. and we have a fair idea of the minimum requirements of this public trust.

Clearly, the journalism that best serves journalism’s ideals is exemplary journalism. Most journalism may not be that good, but it meets the generally recognized standards.

When the newspaper does not come up to the minimum expectionations, it’s the ombudsman’s job to find out why.

The ombudsman scolds the newspaper for violating the rules, for failing to meet the basic requirement. I doubt that we insist that the newspaper achieve the ideals, but our complaining almost certainly reminds readers and journalists what the ideals are. That nudges everybody to keep on expecting and reaching for the best- possible performance.

In my critiquing, I work hard not to be the reader’s advocate or the newspaper’s advocate. I do my best to be absolutely impartial. I actually focus on the relationship between readers and the newspaper and think first how the Post’s performance enhances or undercuts that relationship.

And I try always to articulate the ideal or the minimum expectation. More often than not, I want the paper to publish more information instead of less, to talk to more people instead of fewer, to try to make every story and every picture and every headline and every page layout the very best work the journalist can produce.

But while I’m pushing the paper to give readers more information, I also want the journalists to recognize when the public’s right to know has to be overriden by some other consideration: a family’s privacy or the risk of causing panic or the possibility of the paper being manipulated by people or groups with self-serving motives.

The other theme I keep coming back to is fairness. After the newspaper has promised to keep the public informed, I think it has promised to treat subjects and people and groups and ideas with fairness. So I’m always making a pitch for fairness or finding ways I think a story or picture or headline has not been fair.

I also talk and write a lot about honesty and openness with readers, about bias in coverage, aobut stories that address just a narrow audience, about confidential sources, about unexamined stereotypes, about context and conflicts of interest.

So the internal critic spends her days judging people’s work and telling them they are failing the public is some other way.

This is not a good way to get invited to newsroom parties.

A man who had been a journalist in Washington, D.C., for 30 years wrote to me after he heard I had taken the job at The Post. He said that he had been offered the Post ombudsman job a fear years back, and told them no.

His reason? “Everybody hates the ombudsman. The editors hate the ombudsman. The staff hates the ombudsman. News sources hate the ombudsman. Readers hate the ombudsman. I couldn’t take it.”

The first ombudsman at The Post might have agreed with at least part of that assessment: When he wrote the first critique of the paper in 1970, a whole group of reporters marched into the executive editor’s offier and demanded to know whether they were working for the editors or for the ombudsman.

But The Post had had an ombudsman for 22 years by the time I showed up. The staff had come to understand the role, and to expect their work to be evaluated by someone they do not answer to.

Editors are more likely to welcome, or see the value in, an ombudsman’s critique. But just about everyone at The Post is cordial and everybody cooperates in giving me information. I try not to interrupt people on deadline but they routinely drop everything to give me information or explain their thinking.

Now this is the hard part, but I don’t think an ombudsman should get very friendly with people in the newsroom anyway. I think the relationship between the ombudsman and the journalists in the newsroom is much like the relationship an American reporter has with a source: Pleasant, interested — but removed.

I cannot become close to anyone in the newsroom, because I may need to find fault with that person’s work. A reporter cannot get too close to the mayor, because the reporter may not see flaws in the mayor’s performance that readers need to know about. Or the reporter might be reluctant to write about them. Or the reporter may lose a friend when she does. The same kind of rules have to apply for the ombudsman.

My predecessor, Richard Harwood, had been a reporter and editor at The Post for years, and he had no trouble finding fault with the paper’s work. But I think this very tough journalist found this aspect of the job personally difficult. He told me, “At least you will not be writing about your friends.”

This is the hardest thing about the ombudsman job for me. I enjoy journalists, and admire most of them. I have gotten great satisfaction out of being part of a team of journalists my whole adult life.

Now, this doesn’t mean I never have any social contacts with the people in the newsroom. Last spring, The American Journalism Review published a story about ombudsmen and titled it “The Loneliest Job in the Newsroom.” An editor came to my office the day the magazine came out and invited me to lunch.

I try to be constructive, in both my internal memos and my Sunday column, and make suggestions — if I can think of any — for how mistakes can be avoided next time. I also try to make clear exactly why I came to my conclusion.

In both writing and thinking about the paper’s performance, I think I had better meet the standards I expect the journalists at the paper to meet.

When I do my reporting and really think things through and explain my opinion clearly, then people do disagree with me, but they do so politely.

But if I don’t do my job thoroughly enough, the response is swift and unpleasant. I wrote a column several months ago in which I said The Washington Post was being beat on the story of President Clinton and Whitewater by the much smaller Washington Times. I cited several examples of Washington Times stories that The Post had either ignored or given very little attention.

I had inteviewed the national editor for the column, but I thought that was enough, and had not interviewed five reporters who were actually covering the story. When I came to the office Monday morning, they were lined up ready to lynch me. One by one they came in and explained that they had worked and worked and worked on the stories I had mentioned, and they just didn’t think they were true.

If I had spoken with them before I wrote, I would have reached a different conclusion. So I felt obligated the next week to tell my readers what the reporters had to say, and to add that if a newspaper’s reporters don’t think a story is true, they ought not print it, even if other newspapers think it is true.

Needless to say, I now make sure I interview everyone with anything to say before I write a column.

The other very controversial critique I did was about a popular veteran columnist. This man is a careful journalist. but he got sloppy one week, and wrote an inflammatory column about a feud between the black community and the gay community. The column had so many factual errors in it that The Post had to print an eight-inch correction. The columnist wrote a long apology.

Hundreds of people in the city demanded that he be fired. The primary person he criticized, a city government employee, was fired. I ended up writing two columns about it, trying to explain how the very biased and very inacurrate information could have been written and survived the editing process.

People who took his side in the dispute were furious with me, and wrote and called and complained that I was picking on him. What made it especially difficult was that the columnist is a black man, and I was accused of holding him to a higher standard than I apply to white writers.

Of course, The Post does not always follow my suggestions. But I know people in the newsroom hear me. There are subtle changes in the paper, meetings about subjects I bring up, policies changed or reconfirmed, stories done.

But I will be quite satisfied if the internal critic gets people to talk and to think about things from a different perspective: the detached perspective of someone not immersed in putting out the paper.

I happen to think that the ombudsman’s role as internal critic has the most promise for improving the practice of journalism. Getting feedback from readers is essential for newspapers to fulfill their public mission.

But by being a constant reminder of journalism’s standards and ideals, and being very candid about how the paper is meeting or not meeting those, the ombudsman is a constant catayst for discussion and debate — and I think for improvement.

And even if no reader ever complained, the ombudsman would be lurking around reminding journalists to be aware of why they’re doing what they’re doing and how they can justify it to the public.

Kind of like an ombuzzard.