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AEJMC  February 1999, Week 1

AEJMC February 1999, Week 1

Subject:

AEJ 98 StarckK NWS Ombudsmen as viewed by ombudsmen and their editors

From:

Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 7 Feb 1999 04:16:45 EST

Content-Type:

TEXT/PLAIN

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Parts/Attachments

TEXT/PLAIN (492 lines)

                Newspaper Ombudsmanship as Viewed by Ombudsmen and their Editors--
 
 
Newspaper Ombudsmanship
 as Viewed by Ombudsmen and their Editors
 
 
 
 
by
Kenneth Starck and Julie Eisele
 
 
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
The University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa 52242
 
 
 
Contact: Kenneth Starck
 
[log in to unmask]
(319) 335-3353
Fax: (319) 335-5210
 
 
 
 
This paper has been prepared for the Newspaper Division of the  annual
convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Aug. 5-8, 1998, Baltimore, MD.  The authors acknowledge the assistance of
graduate students Joy Anderson, Cynthia Canteen, Joshua Porter and Qiu Xin Ying
and University of Iowa George H. Gallup Professor Gil Cranberg.
 
 
 
 
 
Newspaper Ombudsmanship
 
As Viewed by Ombudsmen and their Editors
 
 
INTRODUCTION
 
        Declining readership of American newspapers is being correlated with growing
public mistrust of--and disrespect for--the news media.  Polls show that many
Americans believe the press is antagonistic, arrogant, biased and inaccurate.
Contempt for the media has reached new levels in recent years, and studies show
it continues to rise.
        Indeed, a report released in March, 1997, by The Pew Research Center for The
People & the Press showed that 56 percent of Americans think news stories and
reports are often inaccurate, a 22-percent increase over response to the same
survey question in 1985.  Only 27 percent said the press deals fairly  with all
sides in reporting social and political news, while that figure was 34 percent
in 1985.  And 54 percent of Americans said they believe the media hamper society
in solving its problems ("Press Unfair . . ." 1997).
        Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that circulation figures for several
dominant newspapers have declined dramatically in recent years.  Major
newspapers in the U.S. lost thousands of readers in the 1990s (Editor &
Publisher 1992, 1996).  Twelve of the largest 25 newspapers with Sunday editions
saw circulation declines during 1997 (Fitzgerald 1997).  And the outlook dims.
Some media experts cite predictions that fewer than half of all Americans will
read newspapers by the year 2010 (Marks 1997).
        Accordingly, public skepticism and disdain for the press have been identified
by journalism professionals and scholars as fundamental problems.  Journalism
professionals have even voiced fear that the profession may self-destruct, so to
speak, and that government regulation may loom on the horizon (Marks 1997).
        Professional journalism organizations are heeding the crisis.  Among them are
the Freedom Forum, the Nieman Foundation and the American Society of Newspaper
Editors (ASNE).  ASNE is particularly concerned with the issue of newspaper
credibility and has undertaken a study to analyze reasons for the profession's
faltering reputation ("ASNE Launches . . ." 1997).  ASNE President Sandra Mims
Rowe says the study, known as the Journalism Credibility Study, is aimed at
creating a comprehensive plan to enhance newspaper credibility and public
confidence in the news media.
        The project is partly funded by the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation.
One portion of the study, overseen by ASNE's Ethics and Values Committee,
focuses on newspapers and the issue of ombudsmen or staff members holding an
equivalent position.  Other elements include a credibility think tank involving
ASNE members and professional journalists who will meet to study the problem,
examine research conclusions, and suggest solutions to the credibility problem;
a review of existing research on credibility to create a baseline of information
on public viewpoints and how they mesh with journalistic practices;  two random
sample studies of 1,200 individuals to examine questions not investigated in
previous research; and test site partnerships with eight newspapers to study
journalism credibility in their local communities ("ASNE Launches . . ." 1997).
        The ombudsman position has been identified by media professionals as one tool
for enhancing newspaper integrity and credibility.  In general, an ombudsman
receives and analyzes complaints from readers about concerns such as fairness,
balance, taste and accuracy, then suggests appropriate remedies to correct or
clarify media reports.  The first newspaper ombudsman position was created in
1967 by the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times ("What is an Ombudsman?" 1998).
Today, newspaper ombudsmen are relatively rare, employed by fewer than 40 of the
nation's 1,520 daily newspapers (Marquand 1998).  Yet some scholars assert that
the ombudsman position can make a significant contribution to media
accountability by raising questions internally and by writing columns that
address issues of press behavior (e.g., Klaidman and Beauchamp 1987, 227-229;
and Goodwin and Smith 1994, 297-300).
 RESEARCH QUESTIONS
        This project focuses on newsroom views--specifically those of editors and
ombudsmen--concerning the ombudsman role.  Some research has concluded that
ombudsmen primarily serve a public relations role, based on content analyses of
ombudsmen's columns (Sanders and Nemeth 1997; Nemeth and Sanders 1996).  Other
work has shown that the presence of newspaper ombudsmen does not affect
journalists' views of controversial newsgathering techniques but that an
ombudsman's presence could suggest to staffers how serious the newspaper is
about its relationship to its audience (Pritchard 1993).  In a study of
newspapers with and without ombudsmen, McKinzie writes that the approach at
resolving reader complaints and disputes by newspapers with ombudsmen suggests a
positive influence on "public perceptions of newspaper quality and credibility"
(1994, 21).
        This study is concerned with the way in which ombudsmen and editors define
ombudsmen's duties, the perceived impact of ombudsmen on the newspaper staff and
whether--from the ombudsmen's and editors' vantage point--reporters are
influenced in a way that enhances accountability and, hence, credibility.
Editors and ombudsmen at 29 newspapers across the country provided their
insight.
METHODOLOGY
        This project was undertaken at the University of Iowa with the help of graduate
students enrolled in a course titled Contemporary Problems in Journalism.  A
list of newspapers with ombudsmen on staff was obtained from The Organization of
News Ombudsmen (ONO), and questionnaires were distributed to both ombudsmen and
editors at these newspapers.  Ombudsmen were asked to answer 11 questions;
editors were asked to answer five.  Questions were devised after examining
several ombudsmen studies, including Thomas' extensive study of ombudsmen
backgrounds and activities (1995).  While the focus was on  ombudsmen's and
editors' perceptions of whether the ombudsman position enhances credibility, a
range of questions was presented.  Researchers posed specific inquiries about
the primary complaints received by ombudsmen, their suggested solutions and
their input on advantages and disadvantages of the position. Similar questions
were posed to editors.  (See Appendices A and B for the questionnaires.)
        Questionnaires were sent by e-mail, in most cases.  Where e-mail addresses were
not available, the questionnaires were faxed.  In many cases, questionnaires
were re-sent or telephone messages were left as reminders to respondents.  Most
responses were received by e-mail and fax, and several were obtained through
telephone interviews.
        We should note that while some ombudsmen were actually referred to as reader
representatives or assistant to the editor, we deferred to the term "ombudsman,"
as used in the name of the organization.  Also, although ONO has several
electronic media members and a number of international members, we confined
ourselves to United States newspapers.
RESULTS
A profile of the ombudsman
        Twenty-six of the 32 ombudsmen contacted responded to the survey, or 81
percent.  Of those, 18 filled full-time positions; and eight either worked
part-time in this post and filled other duties at the newspaper, or worked
part-time on a contract basis.
        Most ombudsmen were also seasoned journalists.  The respondents averaged 30
years of journalism experience.  They averaged five years of experience as
ombudsmen, ranging from one to 17 years of service.  One newspaper had created
the ombudsman staff position 30 years ago, while at three newspapers the
position was just a year old.  Overall, respondents said the position had been
in existence for an average of 12 years.
From the ombudsman's perspective
        Each was asked to provide a synopsis of his or her duties.  On average, each
spent 40 percent of his or her time--a clear majority--dealing directly with
readers' concerns.  Seventeen said they also prepare reader columns, and 12
reported they participate in outside activities with readers, including such
activities as forums, seminars and leading tours through the newsroom.  Many
reported handling miscellaneous duties, ranging from handling reprint permission
requests to redirecting delivery complaints.  Most ombudsmen said they responded
to a managing editor or executive editor; others said they report to the
editorial page editor, or to the publisher.  But many noted that they work very
independently.
        As expected, ombudsmen overwhelmingly reported that they see their most
important duty as interacting with the readers and providing readers with a
"voice" in the newsroom.  Bringing the public's views into journalism often
spurs discussions "about how those views can help support good journalism," one
ombudsman noted.  Some said simply listening to readers helps:  "I can't tell
you how many, many people have called me to complain and, in the end, tell me
how much they have appreciated the opportunity to talk to someone at the
newspaper . . . even if there's nothing that can be done to totally satisfy
them," said Joe Sheibley, ombudsman at the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel (Indiana).
        As a newsroom-reader liaison, ombudsmen also deal with staff members
frequently.  John Bull, ombudsman at the Philadelphia Inquirer, sees two-way
communication as a crucial part of his job.  "I let the staff know reader
reaction to what we did--or didn't--do."  Bull said he also suggests alternative
ways that "they could have said the same thing without either pulling their
punches or catering to individual reader prejudices."
        Most complaints received by ombudsmen focus on errors, either factual or
grammatical.  A close second was the issue of bias in reporting.  Objections to
stories or photographs that were seen as insensitive, tasteless or an invasion
of privacy ranked third.
        Ombudsmen also were asked to recommend methods for reducing complaints.  Almost
all recommended better reporting and editing, in addition to better training for
reporters.  Other top suggestions:  "sensitivity training" for reporters and
editors to address bias; and more discussion of news placement and content with
readers' viewpoints in mind.
        Requiring journalists to become more accountable for their errors was advocated
by  many respondents.  Reporters need to "bleed more" over their mistakes, said
Phil Record, ombudsman (now retired) at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  "When a
writer causes harm or inconvenience to a reader because of carelessness, order
the writer to call the reader and apologize.  Let them share the reader's hurt
or concern."
From the editors' perspective
        Replies were received from 17 of the 32 editors who were contacted, or 53
percent.  On average, editors believe the ombudsmen at their newspapers spent 46
percent of their time dealing with direct communication from readers.  This
perception is slightly higher than the 40 percent reported by ombudsmen.
However, the difference may occur because many ombudsmen work independently of
their supervisors.  (Said one ombudsman: "I see [my boss] at the annual
Christmas party.")  In fact, many editors were unable to answer this question.
        Editors were asked to identify their ombudsman's most important duty.  The
collective answer was resounding: to listen to--and represent--the public.  In
doing so, one editor concisely noted that the ombudsman puts a "human face and a
human voice" on a large newspaper.  "Dealing with public complaints is the
essence of his job.  He offers an otherwise unburdened ear to the concerns and
complaints of our readers," said Tim McGuire, editor of the Minneapolis Star
Tribune.
        Almost one third of the editors surveyed did not know why their newspapers had
initially hired ombudsmen.  Of those, most said they were uncertain because the
decision preceded their own hiring.  Among other respondents, more than half
said the position was created as a commitment to represent readers' interests.
One editor said the decision was simply a "common sense" move.  Another said it
was the "first step" to getting in better touch with readers.  Tim Harmon,
managing editor at the South Bend Tribune (Indiana), had a similar reply:  "We
felt it was vital to pay more focused attention to the readers."
 Ombudsmen's impact on staff
        A clear majority of ombudsmen--65 percent--said their presence makes reporters
more careful, and that more attention is paid to accuracy and fairness.  One
mentioned that reporters even come to him first when errors are made.  Having an
ombudsman on board "definitely raises the consciousness of staff," said Gina
Lubrano, ombudsman for the San Diego Union-Tribune.  Ombudsman Pat Riley (now
retired) of the Orange County Register (California) said many reporters over the
years have told him they are more careful because of the issues he raises in his
column.  Being on staff makes reporters "much more aware of accuracy and
fairness," said Lynn Feigenbaum, ombudsman at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.
        Some 25 percent of the ombudsmen gave mixed reviews, saying their presence
enhanced staff dedication  "to some degree," or that the difference they made
varied.  On "good" days, Washington Post Ombudsman Geneva Overholser says she
believes her efforts contribute to a higher level of accountability and
fairness. "On my bad days, I think I've just made everyone so mad they're
allergic to what I say, and have left the readers feeling that they're
well-heard, but that it stops right there."  Likewise, noted Linda Raymond,
ombudsman at the Louisville Courier-Journal, "On bad days, I don't think I make
much difference  On better days, I help raise staff consciousness on issues
readers consider important."
        Among editors, nine of 17 said the ombudsman post has promoted a heightened
sense of responsibility among reporters.  "It affects how we handle a story . .
.  The reporters know they can't get off scot-free," said William C. Boyne,
editor/publisher of the Rochester Post-Bulletin. (Minnesota).  Perhaps the
comments of Ken Brusic, executive editor of the Orange County Register, best
summed up the sentiments of many editors:  "Our staff understands that we have a
formal procedure for investigating [reader] concerns and responding to readers,
sometimes in a very public way.  That procedure reinforces the paper's
commitment to accuracy and fairness."
        Several editors said the ombudsman position has helped address readers'
concerns and streamlined the process for making corrections.  A clear majority,
however, voiced the benefits in terms of enhanced accountability and
representation in the newsroom.  "It's critical to our credibility to have
someone whose job it is to represent the customer. In sensitive situations, it
gives us a level of caution and helps ensure that we treat the matter with care
from the beginning.  That can thwart not only bad feelings but lawsuits," said
Carole Leigh Hutton, managing editor of the Detroit Free Press.
        Two editors reported mixed results.  One, Gregory Favre, executive editor at
the Sacramento Bee, noted: "In our case, the ombudsman exerts very little
influence on the reporting staff, largely because he deals so often in
superficial issues.  But he does on occasion cause us to reflect on something we
have done."  Several editors did not respond
to the question.
Views from within the same newsroom
        Responses were received from both the editors and the ombudsmen of 14
newspapers.  Analyzed separately, these "matched" responses--which are
integrated with other responses already presented--show similar patterns to the
pooled results.
        Editors and ombudsmen working together concur that listening to readers is the
ombudsman's most important responsibility.  "My most important duty is to be an
arbitrator, whether it favors our newspaper or the readers, and to make every
effort to answer their concerns," said Paul Bartley, ombudsman at the Bradenton
Herald (Florida).  Executive Editor Wayne Poston agreed:  "Readers are
guaranteed that someone will listen to them--for whatever reason."
        Similarly, Arizona Republic Ombudsman Richard de Uriarte said the most
significant part of his job is to act as a conduit of information.  Deputy
Editor John D'Anna said de Uriarte's most important duty is to "de-mystify the
newspaper" for readers -- to explain the story behind the story.
        Almost all of the editors and ombudsmen jointly agreed that having the
ombudsman position influences their staff in a positive way.  "He reminds them
every day of who it is they're really working for," said Harmon of the South
Bend Tribune.  Two ombudsmen voiced uncertainty about whether they influenced
the staff.  The editors at these respective newspapers said they did, in fact,
influence staff.  "He makes us think twice" before a decision is carried out,
one editor noted.
DISCUSSION
        A majority of both editors and ombudsmen involved in this study unquestionably
agreed:  Having an ombudsman on staff influences the reporters and editors in a
way that enhances fairness and accuracy--and, presumably, credibility.  The two
groups also agreed on the main advantages and disadvantages to having an
ombudsmen on staff.
        Top advantages included direct access for readers, providing readers with "a
voice" and showing them someone will listen.  "The major advantage is having
someone detached from daily production who can listen to public comments about
the newspaper and distill them in a useable way for journalists," said Michele
McLellan, ombudsman at the Portland Oregonian.
        Disadvantages to having an ombudsman included shielding reporters and editors
from complaints, and that some ombudsmen have "too many kooks and regular
callers" whose views may not be representative of all readers.  Interestingly,
15 of the 43 newspaper professionals contacted said they saw no disadvantage to
having an ombudsman on staff.
        Our results tend to solidify and extend findings of previous studies, for
example, those of McKinzie (1994).   Facilitating better understanding and
communications in both directions--to the readers and to the staff--is
beneficial.  It makes sense that a newspaper should have a solid and independent
mechanism for feedback.  As one editor noted, "We do not write into a vacuum."
        Perhaps it would behoove more newspapers to consider adding an ombudsman to
their staff.  Today, as Marquand (1998) notes, only 2.4 percent of all daily
newspapers employ ombudsmen.  This barely represents a blip on the nation's
newspaper scene.  Yet the concept of the ombudsman obviously has staying power,
and most news organizations with ombudsmen firmly endorse the idea.
        Several respondents to this study cited the cost of an ombudsman as one
drawback, a factor which may explain the small number.  However, if readership
(hence, subscriptions) continues to decline, investing in ombudsmen may provide
an economic payoff for the newspaper industry.
        Ultimately, providing such a service to readers may help restore virtue in the
newspaper industry.  Certainly, it would be worthwhile to study further this
beguiling concept we call credibility --including from a variety of
perspectives--to determine whether readers and other newspaper staff members
associate ombudsmanship with credibility and, if so, what, if anything, that
means.
 Appendix A--Questionnaire for Editors
(distributed by e-mail and/or fax)
 
TO: ___________________________________________
Fax # ____________________
 
ASNE--Survey Of Editors Of Newspapers With Ombudsmen
 
        As you may know, the American Society of Newspaper Editors is engaged in a
study of newspaper credibility.  I am assisting in a portion of that study
dealing with ombudsmen (including staff members who hold an equivalent position)
for ASNE's Ethics and Values Committee.
        We'd like you to respond to the following questions.  Please do so in the space
provide or on a separate sheet of paper referring to each of the responses by
question number.  Please fax response to: (319) 335-5210.
        If you have any questions, please get in touch with Ken Starck at (319
335-3353) or at [log in to unmask] or by fax at (319) 335-5210.
        Thanks for your help.
 
1.  We would like you to describe the duties of your newspaper's ombudsman.
Please do this by listing all of the ombudsman's tasks that come to your mind.
Also, please give us your best guess as to the percentage of time the ombudsman
devotes to each of these tasks (EXAMPLE: write column--25 %).
 
 
 
 
2.  If you had to list ONE DUTY of the ombudsman that--from your point of
view--is MOST IMPORTANT, what would that be?
 
 
3.  What do you consider to be the main advantages and disadvantages to your
organization having an ombudsman?
 
ADVANTAGES?
 
 
 
DISADVANTAGES?
 
 
 
4.  What was the main reason (or reasons) your newspaper decided to hire an
ombudsman?
 
 
 
 
5. Do you think having an ombudsman in the organization influences the behavior
of the staff?  (IF YES, in what way(s)? IF NO, Why not?)
 
 
 
RETURN TO FAX: (319) 335-5210
 Appendix B--Questionnaire for Ombudsmen
(distributed by e-mail and/or fax)
 
TO: ___________________________________________
Fax # ____________________
 
ASNE--Survey Of Ombudsmen
        As you may know, the American Society of Newspaper Editors is engaged in a
study of newspaper credibility.  I am assisting in a portion of that study
dealing with ombudsmen (including staff members who hold an equivalent position)
for ASNE's Ethics and Values Committee.
        We'd like you to respond to the following questions.  Please do so in the space
provide or on a separate sheet of paper referring to each of the responses by
question number.  Please fax response to: (319) 335-5210.
        If you have any questions, please get in touch with Ken Starck at (319
335-3353) or at [log in to unmask] or by fax at (319) 335-5210.
        Thanks for your help.
 
1.  We would like you to describe your duties as ombudsman.  Please do this by
listing all of the tasks you routinely carry out.  Also, please give us your
best guess as to the percentage of time you devote to each of these tasks
(EXAMPLE: write column--25 %).
 
 
2.  What are the top five kinds of complaints you receive?
 
3.  With reference to the top complaints, what do you think can be done to
prevent or reduce the number of complaints (EXAMPLE: more careful editing).
 
4. What do you consider to be the main advantages and disadvantages to your
organization having an ombudsman?
 
ADVANTAGES?
 
DISADVANTAGES?
 
5.  If you had to list ONE OF YOUR DUTIES that--from your point of view--is MOST
IMPORTANT, what would that be?
 
6.  Do you think having an ombudsman in the organization influences the behavior
of the staff?  (IF YES, in what way(s)? IF NO, Why not?)
 
7. In your organization, to whom do you report directly (that is, who is your
supervisor)?
 
8.  How many years has your newspaper had an ombudsman position?
 
9.  How many years have you been in this position?
 
10.  Is the ombudsman position full time?
 
11.  How many years have you been working as a journalist?
 
RETURN TO FAX: (319) 335-5210
 
 
ENDNOTES
 
 
 
 "ASNE Launches Journalism Credibility Initiative."  (1997, July 17).
     American Society of Newspaper Editors.  Online.
     Http://www.asne.org/kiosk/news/credibility.htm. Internet.  March 22,
     1998.
 
Editor & Publisher International Yearbook.  (1992).  New York: Editor &
     Publisher Co.  I-29, I-63, I-92, I- I-177, 224, I-326, I-352.
 
Editor & Publisher International Yearbook.  (1996).  New York: Editor &
     Publisher Co.  I-36, I-74, I-110, I-214, I-224, , I-294, I-275, I-398,
     I-431.
 
Fitzgerald, Mark.  (1997, November 6).  "Latest Newspaper Circulation
     Figures: 12 of Top 25 Lose Sunday Readers."  Editor & Publisher
     Interactive.  Online.
     Http://www.mediainfo.com/ephome/news/newshtm/stories/110697n1.htm.
     Internet.  March 12, 1998.
 
Goodwin, Gene and Ron F. Smith.  (1994).  Groping for Ethics in
     Journalism.  3rd ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
 
Klaidman, Stephen and Tom L. Beauchamp.  (1987).  The Virtuous
     Journalist.  New York: Oxford University Press.
 
Marks, Alexandra.  (1997, August 27).  "News Media Seek Credibility."
     Christian Science Monitor.  Online.
     Http://www.csmonitor.com/durable/1997/08/27/us/us.4html.
 
Marquand, Barbara.  (1998, March 7).  "Watchdogs or PR Flacks? The Rare
     Ombudsmen."  Editor & Publisher, 16-17.
 
McKinzie, B. W.  (1994, spring).  "How papers with and without
     ombudsmen resolve disputes."  Newspaper Research Journal, 15 (2), 14-24.
 
Nemeth, Neil, and Craig Sanders.  (1996).  "Public Relations,
     Accountability or Criticism? A Content Analysis of the Public Columns
     Written by Newspaper Ombudsmen."  Paper presented at annual convention
     of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication,
     Newspaper Division.  Anaheim, CA, August 10-13, 1996.
 
"Press Unfair, Inaccurate and Pushy."  (1997).  The Pew Research Center
     For The People & The Press.  Online.
     Http://www.people-press.org/97medrpt.htm. Internet. March 13, 1998.
 
Pritchard, David.  (1993, spring).  "The Impact of Newspaper Ombudsmen
     on Journalists' Attitudes." Journalism Quarterly, 70 (1), 77-86.
 
Sanders, Craig and Neil Nemeth.  (1997).  "Public Information and
     Public Dialogues: An Analysis of the Public Relations Behavior of
     Newspaper Ombudsmen."  Paper presented at annual convention of the
     Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Mass
     Communication and Society Division.  Chicago, July 30-August 2, 1997.
 
Thomas, Maggie B. (1995, May 8).  "News Ombudsmen: An Inside View."
     Paper presented at international convention  of the Organization of
     News Ombudsmen.  Fort Worth, TX.
 
"What is an Ombudsman?"  (1998, February 28).  The Organization of News
     Ombudsmen. Online. Http://www5.infi.net/ono/intro.html. Internet.

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