The Quest for Credibility Through the Public Dialogue in Correction Boxes,
Letters to the Editor and Columns Written by Newspaper Ombudsmen
Department of Communication and Creative Arts
Purdue University - Calumet
Hammond, Indiana 46323-2094
Office: (219) 989-2631
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Department of Communications
John Carroll University
University Heights, Ohio 44118
Office: (216) 397-4356
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
A Paper Submitted to the Newspaper Division of the Association for Education in
Journalism and Mass Communication Annual Convention, August 1999, New Orleans,
The Quest for Newspaper Credibility Through the Public Dialogue in Correction
Boxes, Letters to the Editor and Columns Written by Newspaper Ombudsmen
The news media have a credibility problem that has caused journalists to face
increasing public skepticism about their motivation and power. The public often
perceives the news media to be arrogant, insensitive and out of touch with the
prevailing values in society. Even some journalists believe that the news media
have failed to provide an adequate forum for the public to express its
discontent about media behavior.
Edward L. Seaton, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE)
and editor of the Manhattan, Kan., Mercury recently commented that " . . . the
public views us as overtly sensational, often inaccurate, disrespectful, biased
and unable to explain ourselves." A 1998 ASNE-sponsored study of newspaper
credibility concluded that newspaper audiences feel disconnected from
Related to credibility is the concept of accountability, which is a newspaper's
obligation to explain or justify its behavior to such external constituencies as
readers or sources of information. Providing a public accounting of its
behavior may enhance a newspaper's credibility because it shows the newspaper's
willingness to respond to the public's concerns about its behavior.
Historically, newspaper readers who wanted to comment about a newspaper's
behavior could write letters to the editor. Publishing letters to the editor
helps enhance a newspaper's credibility because it allows the public to comment
on the paper's behavior and to express alternative views to those published
in the newspaper. However, a letter to the editor does not always prompt a
newspaper to publicly respond to the concern raised about the paper's behavior.
As for a public assessment of a newspaper's accuracy, many newspapers publish
corrections, believing them to be essential to enhancing a paper's reputation
for accuracy. Yet the shortcomings of correction boxes is that the paper
seldom does anything more than correct an error. The reader comment that
prompted the correction is not presented.
Some newspapers employ an ombudsman whose job includes soliciting reader
comment about the paper's behavior. Many ombudsmen discuss these reader comments
in a column published in their newspaper. One advantage of the ombudsman's
column is that it often shows both the reader's concern about the newspaper's
behavior and the newspaper's response to that concern.
This paper examines how newspapers published in two cities with competitive
daily newspapers used correction boxes, letters to the editor and an ombudsman's
column as part of their public dialogue with readers about the paper's behavior.
In both cities, Denver and Washington, D.C., one newspaper employed an ombudsman
while the competing newspaper did not.
We sought to assess how the newspapers used these functions as mechanisms of
accountability and to determine if having an ombudsman made a difference in how
the newspapers responded to reader comment about the paper's performance. We
also wanted to determine what role the ombudsman plays in the public dialogue
about the newspaper's performance.
One reason that newspapers give for employing an ombudsman is to enhance their
responsiveness to the public. By examining letters to the editor, correction
boxes and ombudsman columns, we sought to examine the degree to which the four
newspapers that we studied used these functions to publicly "connect" with their
The concept of an ombudsman began with the Swedish parliament's decision in 1809
to create a "citizen's protector" as a check against unfair administrative
decisions rendered by the government. The ombudsman movement began in the
American newspaper industry in 1967 after media critic Ben H. Bagdikian and A.H.
Raskin, then an assistant editorial page editor at The New York Times, suggested
in separate essays that newspapers should appoint an ombudsman. Newspapers
often cite a desire to reverse declining public confidence in the press as a
principal reason for appointing an ombudsman.
The number of news ombudsmen has grown to about 31 in the United States and
about 54 worldwide.
Media scholars have examined the slow acceptance of the ombudsman concept by
newspapers, differences in how the position developed, how ombudsmen
influence the attitudes of journalists, the ombudsman's role in resolving
disputes with readers, the ombudsman's role in monitoring election
coverage, the views of ombudsmen about controversial reporting
practices, acceptance of the position by staff members, and by the
Various articles have examined whether ombudsmen represent their newspaper or
the public and instances when ombudsmen have clashed with the management of
their newspapers. Recent work has found that ombudsmen play a public
relations role and an accountability role.
Although several studies have described the perceptions of editors and
readers on the value of editorial pages, only a few studies have focused on
the role of letters to the editor. Hynds, and Ericson, et.al. observed that
letters to the editor attract readers and enhance a newspaper's credibility,
while providing a forum for exchange of ideas and information. Ericson,
et.al. observed that news sources consider letters to the editor effective at
generating "more balance in a continuing story." But they were pessimistic about
the ability of a writer of a letter to the editor to be effective because
journalists still "have the last word." Nonetheless, Hynds argued that
letters to the editor serve as a safety valve for people who are dissatisfied
about some aspect of community life, including the behavior of the press.
Although newspaper accuracy has been a subject of scholarly study since the
early days of mass media research, sustained scholarly interest in reader
perception of error has coincided with the rise of the newspaper ombudsman
movement. Various studies have sought to explain how competition could
affect accuracy, the public's perception of the accuracy of newspapers,
how sources of information evaluate perceived errors, the tendency to
correct factual mistakes rather than "subjective infractions," the perceived
ineffectiveness of corrections in rectifying mistakes, and newspapers'
willingness and speediness in publishing corrections. Newspapers' general
willingness to correct factual errors may contribute to a higher level of public
credibility than that enjoyed by broadcasters.
An individual's status can influence a person's ability to lodge complaints and
obtain redress. Not surprisingly, those of higher public status, including
business and political leaders, tend to seek corrections more often.
Frequent letters to the editor writers tend to be business executives and
professionals. Contacting an ombudsman to complain about a newspaper's
behavior may work best for those with less frequent contact with news
The December 1998 release of the findings of the ASNE journalism credibility
study has provided more evidence that newspapers are suffering from a
credibility gap with their readers. Among the major findings of the ASNE study
y The public believes that newspapers contain too many factual, spelling and
y Newspapers fail to consistently demonstrate respect for or knowledge of their
readers and communities.
y Bias influences what stories are covered and how they are covered.
y Newsroom values and practices sometimes are in conflict with readers' own
priorities for their newspapers.
y The public believes that newspapers seek out and over-cover sensational
stories because they are exciting and sell newspapers.
y Those who have had experiences with the news process were the most critical
of media credibility.
These views were similar to those found in a 1985 ASNE study of newspaper
credibility. The 1985 study found that the public was critical of newspaper
coverage of ordinary people, concerned about a lack of accuracy in news stories,
and confused about the separation of fact and opinion. As in the 1998 study,
many in the 1985 survey believed that the biases of journalists influenced news
Research Questions and Method
One of our research questions was what is the role that published letters to the
editor and correction boxes play in the public discussion about the newspaper's
performance. Because letters to the editor and correction boxes are among the
most visible of a newspaper's efforts to be accountable to the public, we wanted
to examine the degree to which the four newspapers in our study used them as
part of their public dialogue about the paper's performance.
Although none of the four newspapers indicated in their correction boxes which
errors were corrected as a result of complaints from the public as opposed to
mistakes discovered by the staff, we believe it reasonable to think that most
mistakes corrected in a correction box have the potential to upset one or more
readers. By examining the errors corrected in the correction box, we sought to
determine the types of errors the newspapers corrected and the status of the
party likely to have been offended by the newspaper's mistake.
We also wanted to examine whether the presence of an ombudsman resulted in
differences in how newspapers respond to public concerns about the paper's
behavior. Therefore, another of our research questions was whether a newspaper
that appoints an ombudsman would be more responsive to public concerns about the
paper's behavior and thus more willing to discuss those concerns. We asked this
because the appointment of an ombudsman opens a channel of communication that
would not exist otherwise for the public to discuss the paper's behavior.
Newspapers that give their ombudsman a mandate to publicly criticize the
newspaper may be more willing to create and maintain a public discussion about
the paper's behavior.
It may be, though, that at a newspaper with an ombudsman, complaints and
comments that otherwise would be channeled to the letters to the editor column
or show up in a correction box might be dealt with in the ombudsman's column.
Therefore, another research question we asked was what is the manner in which
the ombudsman responds to public comment about the paper's behavior. Did the
ombudsmen in our study use their public columns as a vehicle for engaging in
critical review of the paper's behavior or was the ombudsman's column a second
form of a letters to the editor column and/or a correction box?
We conducted a content analysis of all letters to the editor and correction
boxes published in the Denver Post the (Denver) Rocky Mountain News, the
Washington Times and The Washington Post during 1997. We also analyzed all
ombudsman columns published in The Washington Post and the Rocky Mountain News
We coded all published correction boxes because correction boxes always involve
the newspaper's behavior. However, we coded only those published letters to
the editor in which the author was writing in response to a specific instance of
the behavior of the newspaper in which the letter was published. Usually the
letter writer was commenting in response to a particular news story, commentary
In the ombudsman columns, we coded each topic within the column in which the
ombudsman discussed a specific concern about the newspaper's behavior. However,
we only coded topics in which the ombudsman made a specific reference to the
topic having been raised by one or more readers during the course of
communication between the ombudsman and the paper's readers.
We developed a coding sheet based on that used by Barkin and Levy in their study
of newspaper correction boxes. The coding sheet was used to classify the
nature of the reader comment about the newspaper's behavior and to record the
status of the party affected by the newspaper's behavior in question. We defined
objective error as factual mistakes, or mechanical mistakes of typography or
transmission. We defined subjective error as mistakes of interpretation or
To determine the status of the likely affected party of letters to the editor
authors and those whose comments were mentioned in the ombudsman columns, we
relied on identifying labels published in the column or the letter to the
editor. In the case of the latter, the newspapers sometimes publish a title or
editor's note identifying the writer in some manner. In other instances, the
writer identified himself or herself in the text of the letter. When the
writer's status could not be determined, we coded the status of the likely
affected party as unknown.
Identifying the status of the likely affected party to an error corrected in a
correction box was a challenge because none of the newspapers indicated who had
demanded a correction of error. Therefore, we considered the nature of the story
in which the error occurred and used that to determine the status of the likely
affected party. In cases where that could not be done, we coded the likely
affected party as unknown.
We initially coded the correction boxes, published letters to the editor and
ombudsman columns by determining if the newspaper's behavior in question
concerned news content, editorials or commentaries. More than 90 percent of
corrected errors in the correction boxes of all four newspapers involved news
content. Similarly, more than 90 percent of reader comments discussed by
ombudsmen at The Washington Post and The Rocky Mountain News involved news
content. Reader comment about editorials showed the greatest variation, ranging
between 8.4 percent for the Washington Times to 14 percent in the Denver Post.
Table 1 Goes Here
A more detailed analysis showed that the newspapers primarily used correction
boxes to correct objective errors rather than subjective errors. At all four
newspapers, the most often corrected errors involved, in descending order, wrong
explanations, wrong names and wrong numbers. This is reasonably consistent with
the findings of studies of newspaper accuracy conducted in the 1980s.
Although earlier newspaper accuracy studies found that "wrong description" was
the leading type of objective error corrected, it may be that the differences
lie in the fine difference in the definition of "wrong description" and "wrong
explanation." Correction boxes published by both Washington newspapers
addressed objective error more than 90 percent of the time. By contrast, both
Denver newspapers corrected objective errors at a somewhat reduced rate.
At all four newspapers, the published letters to the editor in which the
author sought to correct a perceived newspaper error tended to address
subjective concerns. Letters that corrected objective errors tended to involve
what the letter writer perceived as a wrong explanation by the newspaper.
Far more frequently, though, the published letters to the editor expounded upon
the author's view on a particular public issue raised in a news story, editorial
or commentary. Often, the letter writer also expressed disagreement with the
views of others, including those who wrote for the newspaper and the authors of
other published letters to the editor.
A slightly higher percentage of the letters to the editor published by the
Rocky Mountain News created a dialogue of sorts among letters to the editor
writers. This finding may be explained by the existence of a series of
mini-debates among readers about the hazards of automobile travel in the Denv