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News Ombudsmen Are 'Vulnerable Targets' as Budgets Shrink

By Andy Alexander

As Washington conferences go, this one is small. But the roughly 40 members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen are spending the better part of three days talking about big journalistic issues like credibility, fairness and how to hold their newsrooms accountable to their own high standards.

They’re also confronting a harsh reality: Their numbers are being diminished because of cost-cutting by news organizations – both print and broadcasting – around the world. “In a time of shrinking budgets... news ombudsmen are vulnerable targets,” said Jan van Groesen, an ombudsman from the Netherlands who presented findings of a survey of ombudsmen. He noted that 14 news ombudsmen had lost their jobs in the United States since the beginning of 2008. About the same number of current and former U.S. ombudsmen attended today’s session at The Post.

Looking at ombudsmen worldwide, van Groesen said, only a “very very small minority” is truly independent. Among U.S. newspapers, that would be the case for myself and my friend and longtime colleague Clark Hoyt, who holds the title of “Public Editor” at the New York Times. We are not on the staff of our respective newspapers. Rather, we have contracts for fixed terms of a few years and they guarantee us total independence. We do not report to anyone in our news organization and are free to investigate and write about any journalistic issues we choose.

Not surprisingly, the survey of ombudsmen found that “bias” in news coverage is the top complaint from the public.

Among bright spots in the survey: There’s some evidence that the ombudsman concept is being embraced in places like Africa and Eastern Europe.

Ombudsmen are a unique species, both highly principled and masochistic. The latter trait comes from the stamina required to hear incessant complaints from readers, listeners and viewers, while at the same time enduring occasional wrath from reporters and editors after an ombudsman renders judgment on their performance. During shop-talk Monday afternoon, there were several stories of foreign ombudsmen being threatened by unhappy members of their news staff. Most ombudsmen can relate their favorite tale of receiving a tongue-lashing from an angry newsroom staffer.

Ombudsmen offered tips for survival. One was to keep a “respectful distance” from the people we cover in the newsroom, even though some of them may be friends. Another piece of advice that brought a collective nod of approval: “Keep a sense of humor.”

By Andy Alexander  | May 11, 2009; 5:59 PM ET
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