The Ethical Insider: A Key Person in Building Journalism for the Future

Journalism and media are changing fast, but when it comes to correcting our mistakes we are still in the slow lane. KIRK LaPOINTE, Executive Director of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen (ONO), says improving scrutiny inside the newsroom is the key to building public trust.

Megane Callewaert - The Media (CC BY 2.0).jpg

Kirk LaPointe

Connecting with the audience is more important than it ever has been. Today across all platforms of journalism reporters, editors and owners from the boardroom to the newsroom are under intense public scrutiny.

Every published word, image and opinion is analysed and tested by our audience which is whip-smart at identifying errors and demanding remedies when we stray from our aspiration to be ethical and accurate.

Complaints come in all sizes and shapes, but most are about accuracy and increasingly about fairness and journalistic methods. Even when the content is provided for free, people question it, posing challenges to newsroom decision-making and second-guessing editorial judgment. People hate it if we don’t respond or are dismissive and talk down to them. They are merciless if the conversation feels less than authentic.

In this febrile atmosphere it’s increasingly important for newsrooms to have someone on hand to focus on these complaints and concerns. The role of the ombudsman or readers’ editor is to provide in part a moral compass and in part to be a guidance counsellor.

It’s not a world of unrealistic or magical thinking. It’s work embedded in the practical realities of modern and changing journalism, where we often struggle to live up to realistic public expectation and where public ignorance of the craft of journalism remains an obstacle to building better understanding between journalism and the world outside the newsroom.

Today there is a noticeable difference in the nature and tone of public complaints. People appear to be more impatient. Criticisms are harsher. And people appear to be more frustrated by what appears to be media reluctance to admit their mistakes.

It’s difficult for media to address this challenge at a time when many newsrooms are shedding costs; nevertheless, I am pleased to note that the membership of ONO is growing, particularly in Europe and Asia. This is good news, particularly in the face negative signs elsewhere. In North America, for instance, ombudsmen numbers are declining, with the most recent example being the elimination of the role at the Washington Post and its appointment of a reader representative with a far less formidable mandate.

Nevertheless, more media are recognizing that they need a mechanism to reassure the public. They view the ombudsman, a public editor or a similar office as a form of quality assurance to its audience and part of a reputation management system embedded in its governance.

Depending on the mandates, these ombudsmen have significant latitude to proactively and reactively represent the public’s complaints, moods, inclinations and instincts — and, unlike other critiques, to propel a response.

ONO, which has existed since 1980 now represents more than 70 news ombudsmen, aims to enlarge its membership by spreading the message about why the role is needed. This work will be done with the help of the Ethical Journalism Network and other professional groups. We think it serves a wide array of public interests, and we even think it benefits the media’s business interests.

Academic research has consistently found that around 50 percent of all stories contain factual errors; that media trust in most countries has been in decline; and that state and special-interest pressures often exercise discernible sway in journalism.

Too often, newsrooms are prone to be defensive in their culture and much less transparent than the institutions they cover. In an era of media abundance, it makes sense to create and enforce high standards that will enhance and entrench one’s reputation, will signal an accessible and accountable news organization, and are a clear indicator of professionalism in a crowded media market.

A form of oversight does not have to be big and complex, but it can demonstrate how an organization honours its commitments to internationally-recognised codes and standards — to tell the truth, to minimize harm, to act independently, and to seek accountability of others and of themselves.

As EJN members know these are no small matters. Yet in some media the idea of internal oversight is deemed to be an overbearing intrusion into editorial work. Some news managers consider the marketplace alone will keep us honest — that is, if we misbehave, consumers will go elsewhere for their news. We know this isn’t always so.

Others think that the law, particularly on defamation, is a sufficient deterrent to keep news organizations in line. We know, too, that this isn’t so, that not everyone wants to or even can wage a legal fight, and that not all unsuccessful legal cases are without their merits. That clearing a name or a reputation or even basic information need not be a struggle in the courts or even a cat-and-mouse chase.

Still others point to existing remedies – the letters to the editor, online story comments, and even the blogosphere – that offer opportunities to respond and apply checks on journalistic fairness and accuracy. These voices, while often helpful, can only go so far in representing the public because they have no invested authority. There are no professional requirements to listen, to investigate or to act upon them.

Not surprisingly in a time of cost-cutting, the ombudsman can appear an easy target for the editorial axe. As one editor put it recently: “I can choose to have an ombudsman or a health reporter.” We know this is a false choice, but it is an example of the unhappy dilemma facing some editorial leaders.

Many of the reasons not to have an internal ombudsman are borne out of fear, or an oblique concession of vulnerability, or a determination that admission of error constitutes a weakness rather than a virtue.

This is curious for a business that so wants to serve, so enjoys reveling in fanfare, and is all about show and tell and share and discuss. Why does the craft sometimes give the impression it is not ready to make every effort to see, hear and understand its audience?

People don’t necessarily need to be agreed with. An ombudsman is media’s best effort to listen to the audience, to understand its support and criticism and to do so without a violent change in blood pressure either in the newsroom or the boardroom.

I wonder why legacy media haven’t created the position of ombudsman or public editor as they transform the business into digital-first operations. As they remake their processes, I wonder why they do not see the need for a form of public insurance through a mechanism that will ensure the migration of standards into the new and innovative ways of gathering and disseminating news.

For digital media, I wonder why, for all of the glory of the new age, we are failing to explain how standards are evolving and being strengthened? The challenge of building public trust faces all media and, as the recent controversies over unrestrained Twitter comments and hate speech show, no-one is exempt from the need to take responsibility for content.

Crowd sourced content can work, but crowd sourced complaint resolution isn’t workable. Audience engagement can work, but audiences are not enabled to investigate a complaint thoroughly. So, something has to emerge here — if not an ombudsman role, then a new process.

To have the strongest debate on journalism and its future, we need more players in the tent to be transparent and accountable. Because we are in need of many debates that digital media can guide.

But that’s not enough. Ombudsmen have to demonstrate their value and in that regard even the most bottom-line conscious manager should recognise an ombudsman can save an organization a lot of money in legal and court fees. In one newsroom I managed we didn’t have an ombudsman and the highest-paid person on the payroll was our legal counsel who had to deal with countless complaints, mainly about fairness and accuracy. Most stood little or no chance of making it into the courts but nonetheless they occupied time and resources.

Most ombudsmen handle the vast majority of public complaints at a fraction of the expense. The presence of an ombudsman gives the public a legitimate and reliable alternative to the courts, a guarantee of a public airing of a complaint, an investigation, a deliberation — and ultimately, better and credible information that builds public confidence. Not least of the benefits is that the presence of an ombudsman reassures the public someone is there on watch.

We need to empirically examine the connection between the presence of an ombudsman and public trust – and that’s something the EJN and its members can help test for us.

In the coming years as journalists become more entrepreneurial, less tied to organizations, more personally branded, more portable and agile, then what grounds them in the values and standards of the craft becomes vitally important.

We need to invest more in creating a body of ethical entrepreneurs who are schooled to do the right thing, make the best choices, and develop a greater sense of reflection in how they report. The new generations of journalism will have an even greater future if we provide them with ombudsmen who can mentor and guide them to work in an ethical way.

Photo Credit: Megane Callewaert – The Media (CC BY 2.0)