The news ombudsman: Watchdog or decoy?

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The Netherlands Media Ombudsman Foundation, which is dedicated to the self-regulation of journalism in Dutch-speaking regions, in collaboration with the Fontys University of Applied Sciences, Department of Journalism in Tilburg, has conducted a study into the performance of ombudsmen in the news media.

The study is intended to provide professional journalists with more insight into the phenomenon of the news ombudsman as a self-regulation instrument.

The experiences gained thus far with regard to the performance of ombudsmen in news media have demonstrated that the phenomenon of news ombudsman can be an instrument in the self-regulation of journalism. Our frame of reference for this study is the ideal image of a news ombudsman, viz. a fully independent ombudsman who deals with complaints from news consumers in an efficient and adequate manner, who publicly and critically assesses the quality and presentation of journalistic products generated by the medium for which he works, and who places his assessment in the light of relevant issues related to journalistic ethics.

In this study we aim to answer several questions: what types of ombudsman can be distinguished, in the Netherlands and at the global level; what are the similarities and differences; what types of media employ news ombudsmen (daily newspapers, broadcasting companies, digital media); and do news ombudsmen actually contribute to the quality of journalistic products?

In order to gain a picture of the role played by a news ombudsman we have asked ombudsmen across the globe to fill in a survey. In this survey we presented the following questions: what are the tasks and authorities of a news ombudsman; who took the initiative in appointing him; what is his background; how independent is he; does he operate on the basis of his own statute and, if so, what does this statute entail; to whom is he accountable; does he have his own column (for example, weekly) and does he write it in accordance with his own views or is it reviewed beforehand by the editor-in-chief or the management?

We consider that we have made a reasonable case for arguing that, despite the trends outlined, there are amply sufficient points of departure to conclude that the news ombudsman contributes to fostering journalistic quality. Once journalists are aware that some one is monitoring their work every day, critically and publicly (through his column) and that complaints from news consumers about the journalistic product are taken seriously, this will decidedly generate a quality impulse.

To news media that wish to expand their credibility with the public and reinforce their journalistic quality, the ombudsman is one of the most pre-eminent instruments. It seems likely that media will gain in reliability and solidity if the journalistic policy process were made accessible to the public.

A shift, if any, in the position of news ombudsman, viz. from house critic to PR officer or even legal adviser, will not be conducive to journalistic self-regulation. The self-regulating effect of an ombudsman primarily encompasses the publishing of substantiated judgements on journalistic processes and products.

We take a positive view of blogs and sites set up to improve contacts between the media and news consumers, but in our opinion, such options cannot be a substitute for the ombudsman instrument. Accountability and self-regulation are promoted by the media’s public analysis and correction of mistakes. In this respect, ombudsmen and readers’ editors can increase the transparency and accountability of media organisations.

Determining the degree of independence of a news ombudsman and its effect on his position is difficult, even in cases in which that independence has been laid down in an individual statute. Many ombudsmen, also those with their own statutes, indicate that they are accountable to the general editors or the management. This study seems to justify the impression that truly independent ombudsmen, critically assessing their media’s own journalistic product, represent a small minority.

The recent sharp fall in the number of news ombudsmen, especially in the United States, is at odds with the trend that modern society is calling on the media to give more account and exercise more openness regarding their journalistic policy process. This is an alarming discovery, considering the fact that in his plans for the new press policy Minister Plasterk expresses his satisfaction about the appointment of ombudsmen or readers’ editors by news media (cf. http://www.minocw.nl/docu men ten/67791.pdf). Firstly, we do not share his satisfaction at the number of ombudsmen and readers’ editors. Secondly, we believe that the minister ignores the fundamental difference between independent ombudsmen/readers’ editors and their colleagues, who lack an independent status at their medium.

Recommendations

Ideally, the ombudsman is a journalist or media expert assessing the journalistic product on a full-time basis, as a house critic, rather than operating as a PR officer in order to try and earn the commitment of the public.

In order to remove the existing skepticism in society, a news ombudsman needs to be able to operate fully independently. He has no connections with the editors and does not participate in editorial consultations. He tests the journalistic products against prevailing ethical standards and shares his analyses and unfettered judgement with the public.

When journalistic processes and products are tested against ethical standards, these standards must be open and accessible to the public, for example, through the media’s web site. The ombudsman must specify such standards in his publications. The ombudsman’s own methods must also be transparent; his statute must be public.

Another essential requirement is that the ombudsman or readers’ editor must be easy to reach and approach. The newspaper or broadcasting company must publish his e-mail address, telephone number and office hours in a clearly visible manner in the colophon and/or on its home page.

In order to promote worldwide uniformity in the role of news ombudsmen, the ethical code (Mission Statement) of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) is recommended as the basis for his operations. It should be noted in this respect that the uniqueness of each news medium, manifested in medium type and target group, can lead to certain adjustments and supplements to such a standard code.

Should an ombudsman preferably be some one from the editorial ranks? Or is an external ombudsman given preference? Some one who used to be a (general) editor has the advantage of being familiar with the editorial culture. An outsider can adopt a fully independent position, especially when appointed for a limited period of time. That is why a structure involving an editor-in-chief publishing a letter or responding to questions once a week is not ideal. Although his recommendations carry more weight in terms of policy than those of an ombudsman or readers’ editor, there is no independent and critical review.

Especially this independence is essential. In addition, the candidate must be someone who is well acquainted with journalistic practices and the prevailing customs and standards. Someone who enjoys the confidence of the editors and the general editors. In order to be credible in the eyes of the readers or viewers, he will need to adopt a critical attitude towards the editors. This implies that he will continually test the journalistic processes and products against the journalistic and ethical principles and standards of the medium concerned.

The position of a news ombudsman is still delicate, particularly among fellow journalists at the ombudsman’s own medium, who feel uncomfortable with a professional critic (“the copy police”) of their product. Full independence of a news ombudsman can aid in internal acceptance.

The public needs to have low-threshold access to some one who takes their comments and complaints seriously and who challenges the editors to give chapter and verse. This will contribute greatly to the transparency of journalism and self-regulation in the media sector.

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