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AEJMC  September 1999, Week 4

AEJMC September 1999, Week 4

Subject:

AEJ 99 NemethN NWS Quest for credibility through dialogue in letters to the editor

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The Quest for Credibility Through the Public Dialogue in Correction Boxes,
Letters to the Editor and Columns Written by Newspaper Ombudsmen










Neil Nemeth,
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication and Creative Arts
Purdue University - Calumet
Hammond, Indiana 46323-2094
Office: (219) 989-2631
E-mail: [log in to unmask]


Craig Sanders
Assistant Professor
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,
Louisiana.





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.[1]
        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."[2] A 1998 ASNE-sponsored study of newspaper
credibility concluded that newspaper audiences feel disconnected from
journalists.[3]
        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.[4] 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[5] 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,[6] believing them to be essential to enhancing a paper's reputation
for accuracy.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]
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.[10] 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
readers.
Background
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.[11] 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.[12] Newspapers
often cite a desire to reverse declining public confidence in the press as a
principal reason for appointing an ombudsman.[13]
The number of news ombudsmen has grown to about 31 in the United States and
about 54 worldwide.[14]
        Media scholars have examined the slow acceptance of the ombudsman concept by
newspapers,[15] differences in how the position developed,[16] how ombudsmen
influence the attitudes of journalists,[17] the ombudsman's role in resolving
disputes with readers,[18] the ombudsman's role in monitoring election
coverage,[19] the views of ombudsmen about controversial reporting
practices,[20] acceptance of the position by staff members,[21] and by the
public.[22]
        Various articles have examined whether ombudsmen represent their newspaper or
the public[23] and instances when ombudsmen have clashed with the management of
their newspapers.[24] Recent work has found that ombudsmen play a public
relations role[25] and an accountability role.[26]
        Although several studies have described the perceptions of editors[27] and
readers[28] on the value of editorial pages, only a few studies have focused on
the role of letters to the editor.[29] 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.[30] 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."[31] 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.[32]
        Although newspaper accuracy has been a subject of scholarly study since the
early days of mass media research,[33] sustained scholarly interest in reader
perception of error has coincided with the rise of the newspaper ombudsman
movement.[34] Various studies have sought to explain how competition could
affect accuracy,[35] the public's perception of the accuracy of newspapers,[36]
how sources of information evaluate perceived errors,[37] the tendency to
correct factual mistakes rather than "subjective infractions,"[38] the perceived
ineffectiveness of corrections in rectifying mistakes,[39] and newspapers'
willingness and speediness in publishing corrections.[40] Newspapers' general
willingness to correct factual errors may contribute to a higher level of public
credibility than that enjoyed by broadcasters.[41]
        An individual's status can influence a person's ability to lodge complaints and
obtain redress.[42] Not surprisingly, those of higher public status, including
business and political leaders, tend to seek corrections more often.[43]
Frequent letters to the editor writers tend to be business executives and
professionals.[44] Contacting an ombudsman to complain about a newspaper's
behavior may work best for those with less frequent contact with news
organizations.[45]
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
were:
y               The public believes that newspapers contain too many factual, spelling and
grammar errors.
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.[46]
        These views were similar to those found in a 1985 ASNE study of newspaper
credibility.[47] 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
coverage.[48]
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
during 1997.
        We coded all published correction boxes because correction boxes always involve
the newspaper's behavior.[49] 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.[50] Usually the
letter writer was commenting in response to a particular news story, commentary
or editorial.[51]
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.[52]
We developed a coding sheet based on that used by Barkin and Levy in their study
of newspaper correction boxes.[53] 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
judgment.[54]
        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.
Findings
        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.[55] 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.[56]
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."[57] 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 Denver
area, the influx of non-natives to Colorado and the role of homosexuality in
religious life.
These mini-debates had their impetus in the newspaper's reporting of significant
issues, including stories about transportation problems in the Denver area that
resulted in a referendum on a proposal to build a light rail mass transit
system. Also prompting reader comment were news stories about the quality of
life in the greater Denver area and the decision of the Southern Baptist Church
to boycott entertainment products offered by the Walt Disney Co. Church leaders
believed that Disney was endorsing anti-Christian values under the guise of
providing family entertainment. The debates among letter writers stretched over
several months.
        The ombudsmen for The Washington Post and the Rocky Mountain News differed
somewhat in the reader concerns that they addressed in their columns. Nearly
half of the topics of reader concern addressed by Rocky Mountain News Reader's
Representative Jean Otto involved objective errors made by the News, most
notably wrong explanations, and typographical and spelling mistakes.[58]
        By contrast, less than a third of the reader concerns that Washington Post
ombudsman Geneva Overholser addressed in her column pertained to objective
errors made by the Post. We coded as "miscellaneous" a number of errors pointed
out by readers to the ombudsman. The majority of these situations, which
included both subjective and objective errors, involved readers who questioned
whether a writer's word choice was proper.
Other issues raised by readers that we coded as "miscellaneous" included praise
for the newspaper, discussion of changes made between editions of one day's
newspaper, the use of 900 telephone numbers to distribute the answers to the
newspaper's crossword puzzle, the proper use of the word "Anglo," the use of
"shorthand" language that confused a reader, and the use of photographs that had
been misfiled in the newspaper's library.
------------------
Table 2 Goes Here
------------------

The status of those who may have been affected by the errors corrected in the
correction boxes, who wrote published letters to the editor and whose concerns
were the subject of an ombudsman's column could not be ascertained in the
majority of instances. Nonetheless, we discovered that errors in stories
involving business executives and government officials dominated the correction
boxes at all four newspapers. This finding is consistent with those of earlier
studies of newspaper accuracy.[59]
Of the authors of published letters to the editor whose status we were able to
identify, government officials and business executives dominated as well. Yet
those writing on behalf of voluntary organizations, trade organizations and
people who were personally affected by the newspaper's behavior contributed
nearly as many published letters to the editor.
Professionals, academics, journalists, and representatives of trade associations
were most likely to be identified in the ombudsman columns of the Rocky Mountain
News and The Washington Post. However, the percentage of readers whose comments
about the newspaper's behavior made their way into the ombudsman's column but
whose status could not be identified was significantly higher than was the case
with the correction boxes and published letters to the editor.
In summary, we found a fairly consistent pattern of reader contact with the
newspaper concerning its behavior. News content dominated the correction boxes
and ombudsman's columns. Reader reaction to the opinion of columnists or other
letters to the editor writers represented a sizable, although not dominant,
portion of the published letters to the editor that addressed the newspaper's
behavior in some manner.
The correction boxes primarily corrected objective errors, mostly mistakes of
wrong explanations, wrong names and wrong numbers. Subjective errors were most
often "corrected" in letters to the editor. Many of these subjective errors
involved readers who disagreed with the emphasis of a particular news story,
editorial or commentary. Most of the time, the letter writer used the letter as
a platform from which to espouse his or her views on a particular public issue.
The fact that the four newspapers tended to correct objective errors is
consistent with Barkin and Levy's study of correction box practices at The New
York Times and The Washington Post.[60] Likewise, the tendency for subjective
errors to be "corrected" in letters is consistent with Whitney's finding that
editors tend to channel them to the letters to the editor column.[61]
About 5 percent of our coding decisions reflected the occurrence of a dialogue
among letters to the editor writers, although this tendency was somewhat more
frequent at the Rocky Mountain News. Nearly half of our coding decisions in the
columns written by the reader's representative of the Rocky Mountain News
involved the correction of objective errors, specifically wrong explanations,
and typographical and spelling errors. The ombudsman for The Washington Post
devoted only about a third of her columns to discussing these types of errors.
Many of the concerns raised by readers with the ombudsmen and discussed in their
columns were specific enough to merit classification as "miscellaneous."
Discussion
        Our study examined and assessed the public channels of communication between
newspapers and their readers in two cities in which there is daily newspaper
competition and in which one newspaper employs an ombudsman while the other does
not. We sought to determine whether the presence of an ombudsman expanded the
dialogue between reader and newspaper.
        The short answer to this question is that the presence of an ombudsman only
marginally expanded the dialogue between the newspaper and its readers. We found
that rather than consistently addressing a wide range of reader concerns about
their newspaper's behavior, the ombudsmen in Denver and Washington tended to
focus on reader concerns pertaining to the kinds of objective errors that a
newspaper might correct in its correction boxes.
        An ombudsman's needs in writing a weekly column may mean there is motivation to
highlight the most interesting and unusual comments received during the previous
week about the newspaper's performance. The high number of reader concerns that
we coded as "miscellaneous" suggests that reader concerns about the paper's
behavior may defy the more traditional definitions of "error" used by
researchers and members of the public.
        To be sure, the ombudsmen at The Washington Post and the Rocky Mountain News
used their columns to comment about the state of journalism generally and about
various public events involving the newspaper. These commentaries may have
helped to advance the public's understanding of journalistic practices and to
enhance the newspaper's credibility with the public.
However, an ombudsman's greatest contribution may be in what he or she has to
say about his or her newspaper and the answers the ombudsman obtains for readers
in response to their complaints and comments about the newspaper's behavior. We
believe that ombudsmen could play a more substantive role in advancing the
public's understanding of journalistic practices and addressing the credibility
gap between newspapers and readers if ombudsmen would focus more directly on the
subjective "errors" detected by readers.
        The tendency of the reader's representative of the Rocky Mountain News to use
her column to correct such objective errors as wrong explanations and spelling
mistakes is commendable. The 1998 ASNE credibility study found that most
newspaper readers care very much about objective errors and feel better about a
newspaper that corrects such mistakes.[62]
Yet the ASNE study also found that newspapers readers care just as much about
such issues as objectivity, fairness and the impact that newspapers have on
their communities.[63] These are issues that an ombudsman is well suited to
address in his or her column. Yet our study of ombudsman columns published in
the Rocky Mountain News and The Washington Post found that the ombudsmen seldom
addressed reader concerns about these issues.[64]
        We also examined the degree to which published letters to the editor
represented a public dialogue about the newspaper's performance. The
mini-dialogues on public issues that played out in the Rocky Mountain News along
with the more limited give and take discussion that occurred in published
letters to the editor of the other newspapers offers some evidence that the
letters to the editor column is a viable forum for public discussion of public
issues. Although these public debates may be a step ahead of traditional town
hall debates of yesteryear, they are several steps behind the debates that occur
on computer bulletin boards and chat rooms in cyberspace.
        As a forum for an on going dialogue about a newspaper's behavior, the published
letters to the editor seldom served this function. Many published letters were
critical of the newspaper's behavior, but for the most part, the authors used
their criticism of a news story, a commentary or an editorial as a jumping-off
point to press their views about a matter of public concern. Most of the time
the public issues discussed had already been reported and/or commented upon in
the newspaper in which the letter to the editor was published. Seldom did the
newspapers publish a letter in which the author was not commenting upon or
raising an issue in response to a specific published news story, editorial or
commentary.
This situation was particularly pronounced in the Washington newspapers. Because
Washington is the seat of the federal government and many key policy makers
probably read the Washington newspapers, it may be that many letters to the
editor writers see getting a letter published in the Post or the Times as an
opportunity to affect the policy-making process and/or influence public
opinion.[65]
It also is noteworthy that business executives and government officials wrote a
significant number of the published letters to the editor. Likewise, most of the
errors corrected in the correction boxes involved stories in which the primary
affected party was likely to have been a business executive or government
official.
Business and government officials have vested interests in addressing perceived
shortcomings in a newspaper's account of their activities. A business leader's
interest is protecting the company's financial well-being. A government
official's interest is building and maintaining public support. Because business
and government leaders tend to have more direct contact with the media than
others, it is not surprising that they also make wide use of letters to the
editor columns and that correction boxes tend to correct errors that might
displease them.
The high percentage of parties whose status we had to code as unknown made it
difficult to judge what significant types of people commented to the newspaper
about its behavior. Nonetheless, we found that academicians, professionals,
trade associations and journalists were among the most identifiable parties
whose comments about the newspaper's performance showed up in the ombudsman's
columns. These groups may have less experience in dealing with the mass media
than do business and government leaders. They may be more likely to need the
services of a "complaint manager" to make their way through the complex
organization of a metropolitan newspaper and to help them articulate their
concerns.
        The recent ASNE credibility study suggests that newspapers need to do a better
job of reporting on issues concerning African-Americans, Latinos-Hispanics,
conservatives, the poor and people who receive public assistance, and members of
religious organizations.[66] A newspaper ombudsman may have a significant role
to play in reaching out to people inside these groups who tend to lie outside of
"officialdom." Ombudsmen could help them to become part of the public dialogue
about the newspaper's performance and its role in the community. Doing this
might help newspapers better address the kinds of credibility problems
identified in the ASNE study. Such efforts could be the subject for future
research by media scholars.
        Despite these findings, our study has some limitations. A content study cannot
explain why people do or do not contact a newspaper and ask that an error be
corrected, why people write letters to the editor or why they contact an
ombudsman to express their views about the newspaper's behavior. Nor were we in
a position to assess the level of satisfaction that resulted because the
newspaper published a letter to the editor or corrected an error. We could not
determine the satisfaction of those whose comments about the newspaper's
behavior the ombudsman singled out for discussion in her column. Surveys of
those who write letters to the editor, those who ask that newspapers correct
errors and those who contact the ombudsman are needed to answer this question.
Likewise, observational studies of newspaper personnel who receive and process
reader comment about the paper's behavior are needed to further clarify these
issues.
        A more comprehensive study of newspapers that employ an ombudsman could help to
determine if the ombudsmen for the Rocky Mountain News and The Washington Post
are typical or atypical among ombudsmen in how they go about selecting reader
comment for inclusion in their columns. Similarly, a study that examines a wider
range of newspapers is needed to determine if the manner in which the Denver and
Washington newspapers correct errors and select letters to the editor for
publication is typical or atypical.
        Nonetheless, our study raises questions about the effectiveness of letters to
the editor columns, correction boxes and ombudsman columns in adequately
addressing the credibility concerns raised in the ASNE credibility study. What
we saw was typical of traditional journalism whereby various points of view were
presented and readers were left to decide what to think about the newspaper's
behavior. Most of the time, the newspapers were silent on how and why an error
had occurred. Criticism expressed in letters to the editor went unanswered. The
ombudsmen mostly spent their time discussing objective errors.
        This may have fulfilled the newspaper's role as a marketplace of ideas, but as
mechanisms of accountability, it was less effective. The ASNE credibility study
suggested that to narrow the credibility gap, newspapers and their readers must
do more talking with each other. Our study suggests that the traditional
mechanisms that newspapers use to establish and maintain this dialogue more
often than not resulted in readers and newspapers talking past each other.
        Underlying the credibility problem is the need for newspapers to be considered
to be more accountable to the public. Readers in Denver and Washington who
sought accountability from their newspapers got it some of the time, but not
most of the time. The dimensions of the newspaper industry's credibility
problems are complex and may take years to address. Yet we believe that in order
to begin narrowing the credibility gap, newspapers need to do a better job of
responding to the specific concerns of the public about the paper's behavior.
This means doing taking a more active role in using the traditional forms of
accountability to establish a dialogue with readers.
        If the public perception is that the newspaper is not responding to the
public's concerns or that the newspaper is not being candid in discussing its
performance, even if by omission, then credibility cannot be enhanced and may,
in fact, be compromised. By not responding to public concerns about its
behavior, newspapers are defeating many of the primary reasons for encouraging
public discussion of press behavior. If accountability is a prerequisite for
reviving public confidence in newspapers, then the process of providing a more
complete and truthful account of the newspaper's activities must begin and soon.

















        -  -
Table 1: Objective and Subjective Errors (in percentages)

                                        Rocky Mt. News   Denver Post    Wash. Times   Wash. Post

                                        CXB   LTE  Omb. CXB  LTE        CXB  LTE        CXB  LTE  Omb.

Objective
Error Type

Wrong Description                         3.6   0   0.5  3.7    0        2.8  0.1        1.1  0.2   8.0
Wrong names                              21.0   0   4.1 10.6  0.1       21.6  0.1       16.6  0.1   1.1
Wrong numbers                    18.5   0   4.1  5.6  0.1        9.4  0.2       11.9  0.1     0
Wrong Explanation                        27.2 2.0  11.3 33.6  1.5       35.0  8.5       38.5  4.7   2.2
Typos/spelling error              1.5   0  17.3  8.7  0.2        7.8  0.1        6.8    0   6.9
Wrong locations                   3.1   0   0.5  5.6    0        2.8    0        3.2    0     0
Wrong times                              11.8   0     0  8.1    0          0    0        1.0    0.1       0
Wrong titles                      1.0     0       0      1.2      0      3.5      0      3.2      0       0
Wrong addresses                     0     0       0        0      0      1.6      0        0      0       0
Miscellaneous                     0.5     0     11.8     1.9      0      8.3     0.1     9.4     0.2 12.6

Subjective
Error Type

Omissions                                10.8    2.3     6.3    17.4     3.1     2.0     2.6     3.5     4.8    13.8
Disagreement with emphasis        1.0   24.2    23.5     0.6    25.8       0    27.4     0.7    25.6    19.5
Misquotes                                   0    0.1       0     1.2       0     3.2     0.7     1.6     0.2     2.3
Misleading headlines                0    1.0     7.2     0.6     0.7     2.0     0.3     1.9     0.3     2.6
Story suggestions                           0    0.1     0.5       0       0       0       0       0     0.2       0
Comments on public issues           0   53.7     4.2       0    60.0       0    50.0       0    53.3       0
Dialogue with other writers         0   12.7     0.5       0     6.2       0     6.4       0     7.7     3.4
Miscellaneous                       0    3.9     8.2     1.2     2.3       0     3.5     0.6     2.5    27.6

Total percentage                          100  100       100     100     100     100     100     100     100     100

N = Coding Decisions             195    2,903    221     161    2,522    254    2,623    691    3,341     61


Table 2: Status of Likely Affected Party (in percentages)

                                        Rocky Mt. News   Denver Post    Wash. Times   Wash. Post

                                        CXB   LTE  Omb. CXB  LTE        CXB  LTE        CXB  LTE  Omb.


Business leaders                        21.5   1.1    0 21.7   1.2      13.8     1.3    13.6  2.1     0
Government officials            19.0   2.4    0 23.6     3.4    41.1  13.8      26.8 13.1     0
Event sponsors                  13.9   0.1        0     12.5     0.1     1.2       0     9.1    0.2       0
Professionals                    1.0     2.1    1.5      3.7     2.7     2.8     2.0     3.1    1.8     1.5
Voluntary organizations          5.1     4.6      0      2.5     2.1     0.4     0.4     0.4    1.0       0
Celebrities                                0       0      0      0.6       0     2.8     0.1       0      0       0
Miscellaneous                    3.1     1.8    0.5      1.9     2.5     8.3    10.9    11.1     5.0      0
Personally affected              0.5     2.3      0      5.6     0.8     6.3     0.6     7.6     2.6      0
Trade association                        0.5     2.1      0      1.2     1.7     2.8    21.8     3.0    11.2    1.5
Entertainment industry             0     0.1      0      0.6     0.1     0.8     0.1     3.9     0.1      0
Associates of deceased           1.0     0.1      0        0       0     2.0       0     0.7     0.1      0
Persons in legal
  Proceedings                    6.2     0.2      0      5.6     0.2     1.6     0.1     2.4     0.1      0
Academics                                  0     1.6    0.5        0     2.2     4.3     2.6     4.4     2.7     1.5
Journalists                              1.0     0.4      0      4.4     0.2     3.2     0.7     2.1     0.8     3.0
Unknown                         27.2    81.1    97.5    16.1    82.8     8.6    45.6    11.8    59.2    92.5

Total percentage                        100     100     100     100     100      100    100      100    100     100

N = Number of Cases             195     1,598   204     161     1,684    253    1,373    669    1,867     67




        -  -
References

[1]   For a recent discussion of this problem, see F. Richard Ciccone, "Trust,
the 1st Amendment . . . and us," Chicago Tribune, November 9, 1997, 23.
[2]   "Remarks by Edward L. Seaton," located at
www.asne.org/works/jcp/seaton.htm
[3]  ASNE Journalism Credibility Project: Executive Summary, located at
www.asne.org/works/cp/executivesummary.htm
[4]   David Pritchard, "The Role of Press Councils in a System of Media
Accountability: The Case of Quebec," Canadian Journal of Communication 16:73-93
(1991).
[5]   Ernest Hynds, "Editorial Page Editors Discuss Use of Letters," Newspaper
Research Journal, 12(4):124-136 (1991). See also,  Richard V. Ericson, Patricia
M. Baranek and Janet B.L. Chan, Negotiating Control: A Study of News Sources
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989) 326-376.
[6]   Steve M. Barkin and Mark R. Levy, "All the News That's Fit to Correct:
Corrections in the Times and the Post," Journalism Quarterly 60:218-225 (1983).
[7]   D. Charles Whitney,  Begging Your Pardon: Corrections and Corrections
Policies at Twelve U.S. Newspapers, Working Paper, Gannett Center for Media
Studies (1986). The 1998 ASNE study provides support for this by finding that 78
percent of those surveyed said they "felt better" about the newspaper after
seeing corrections published in the paper. ASNE Journalism Project: Major
Findings No. 1, located at www.asne.org/works/jcp/majorfinding1.htm
[8]   For results of a recent survey of  how newspaper ombudsmen communicate
with the public , see 1997 Survey of ONO Members, located at
www5.infi.net/ono/survey.html
[9]  We chose Denver and Washington for this study because we wanted to compare
the performance of daily, independently owned newspapers that compete for
readers in the same city. The cities also had to offer a situation where one
newspaper employed an ombudsman and the other newspaper did not. We considered
but ruled out including in our study cities such as Minneapolis-St. Paul and the
Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, where independently owned competing daily
newspapers compete for many of the same readers and one paper employs an
ombudsman while the other does not. We reasoned that although there may be
considerable overlap of circulation, the competing newspapers in question serve
separate urban cores.  We also considered Boston, but ruled it out because
during 1997 the duties of the ombudsman at the Boston Globe were redefined in
such a way that he no longer published a column that addressed reader concerns
about the paper's behavior.
[10]  David R. Nelsen and Kenneth Starck, "The Newspaper Ombudsman as Viewed by
the Rest of the Staff," Journalism Quarterly 51:453-457 (1974).
[11]   For a comprehensive description of the ombudsman movement generally,  see
Donald C. Rowat, The Ombudsman Plan: Essays on the Worldwide Spread of an Idea
(Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973).
[12]  Ben H. Bagdikian, "The American Newspaper is Neither Record, Mirror,
Journal, Ledger, Bulletin, Telegram, Examiner, Register, Chronicle, Gazette,
Observer, Monitor, nor Herald of the Day's Events," Esquire (March 1967), 124,
138-142; A.H. Raskin, "What's Wrong with American Newspapers?" The New York
Times Magazine, June 11, 1967.  Publisher Barry Bingham Sr. and Executive Editor
Normal Isaacs spotted Raskin's article and appointed John Herchenroeder as the
first newspaper ombudsman in North America. "Ombudsman Named by C-J  & Times,"
The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Ky.), July 16, 1967.
[13]   J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power (New York: Longman, 1995); David R.
Nelsen and Kenneth Starck, "The Newspaper Ombudsman as Viewed by the Rest of the
Staff," Journalism Quarterly 59:453-457 (1974).
[14]   For an up-to-date roster of news ombudsmen, see the World Wide Web site
maintained by the Organization of News Ombudsmen at www5.infi.net/ono/
[15]   William L. Barnett, "Survey Shows Few Newspapers are Using Ombudsmen,"
Journalism Quarterly 50:153-156 (1973);  Suraj Kapoor and Ralph Smith, "The
Newspaper Ombudsman - A Progress Report," Journalism Quarterly 56:628-631
(1979).
[16]   Nelsen and  Starck,  op. cit.
[17]  David  Pritchard, "The Impact of Newspaper Ombudsmen on Journalists'
Attitudes," Journalism Quarterly 70:77-86 (1993).
[18]  B.W. McKenzie, "How Papers With and Without Ombudsmen Resolve Disputes,"
Newspaper Research Journal 15:14-24 (Spring 1994).
[19]   Lamar W. Bridges and Janet A. Bridges, "Newspaper Ombudsman's Role During
Presidential Campaign," Newspaper Research Journal 16:76-90 (Spring  1995).
[20]   Sherrie L. Wilson, William A. Babcock and John Pribek, "Newspaper
Ombudsmen's Reactions to the Use of Anonymous Sources," Newspaper Research
Journal 18:141-153 (Summer/Fall 1997).
[21]   Nelsen and Starck,  op. cit.; Simon Langlois and Florian Sauvageau,
"L'ombudsman de Press dans Deus Quotidiens Candiens," Communication Information
10:189-210 (1989).
[22]   James M. Bernstein, "The Public's View of Newspaper Accountability,"
Newspaper Research Journal 7:1-9 (1986); Barbara W. Hartung, Alfred JaCoby and
David M. Dozier, "Reader's Perception of Purpose of Newspaper Ombudsman
Program," Journalism Quarterly 65:914-919 (1988).
[23]   Ben H. Bagdikian, "Bagdikian's Post-Mortem: Keep up the Criticism," The
Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (October 1972) 11-13;
Michael K. Knepler and Jonathan Peterson, "The Ombudsman's Uneasy Chair,"
Columbia Journalism Review (July/August 1978) 54-57; James Boylan, "The
Ombudsman's Tale," Columbia Journalism Review (July/August 1981) 28-31;
Cassandra Tate, "What do Ombudsmen do?"  Columbia Journalism Review (May/June
1984) 37-40.
[24]  Bagdikian, op. cit.; A. Radloff, "Racial Controversy Causes Rift," Editor
and Publisher (July 5, 1980) 18, 22; Richard P. Cunningham, "L.A. Riot Coverage
Criticism Costs Ombudsman his Job," The Quill,  80(6):12-13 (1992).
[25]  Craig Sanders and Neil Nemeth, "Public Information and Public Dialogues:
Using the Grunig and Hunt Typology to Analyze Newspaper Ombudsmen's Interaction
with the Public," Newspaper Research Journal, in press.
[26]  James S. Ettema and Theodore L. Glasser, "Public Accountability or Public
Relations? Newspaper Ombudsmen Define Their Role," Journalism Quarterly 64:3-12
(1987).
[27]  Leo Bogart, "Newspapers and Their  Readers," in Press and Public: Who
Reads What, When and Why in American Newspapers (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, 1989); Ernest C. Hynds, "Editors at Most U.S. Dailies see
Vital Roles for Editorial Page," Journalism Quarterly 71:573-582 (1994); Ernest
C. Hynds, "Editors Expect Editorial Pages to Remain Vital in Year 2000,"
Journalism Quarterly 66: 441-445 (1989).
[28]  Gerald C. Stone and Timothy Boudreau, "Comparison of Reader Content
Preferences," Newspaper Research Journal 16(4):13-27 (1995).
[29]  William D. Tarrant, "Who Writes Letters to the Editor?" Journalism
Quarterly 34:501-502 (1957); David L. Grey and Trevor R. Brown, "Letters to the
Editor: Hazy Reflection of Public Opinion," Journalism Quarterly 47:450-456
(1970); Richard V. Ericson, Patricia M. Baranek and Janet B.L. Chan, Negotiating
Control: A Study of News Sources (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989),
326-376; David Pritchard and Dan Berkowitz, "How Readers'  Letters May Influence
Editors and News Emphasis: A Content Analysis of 10 Newspapers, 1948-1978,"
Journalism Quarterly 68:388-395 (1991); Ernest C. Hynds, "Editorial Page Editors
Discuss Use of Letters," Newspaper Research Journal 12(4):124-136 (1991).
[30]   Hynds, "Editorial Page Editors," op. cit.; Ericson et.al., Negotiating
Control, op. cit.
[31]   Ibid., 337-38.
[32]   Hynds, "Editorial Page Editors," op. cit.
[33]   Mitchell V. Charnley, "A Study of Newspaper Accuracy," Journalism
Quarterly, 13:394-401 (1936).
[34]   Fred  C. Berry Jr., "A Study of Accuracy in Local News Stories of Three
Dailies," Journalism Quarterly 44:482-490 (1967); Gary C. Lawrence and  David L.
Grey, "Subjective Inaccuracies in Local News Reporting," Journalism Quarterly,
46:753-757 (1969); William B. Blankenburg, "News Accuracy: Some Findings on the
Meaning of Errors," The Journal of Communication 20:375-386 (1970).
[35]   Hal Marshall, "Newspaper Accuracy in Tucson," Journalism Quarterly
54:165-168 (1977).
[36]  C. Edward Wilson and Douglas M. Howard, "Public Perception on Media
Accuracy," Journalism Quarterly 55:73-76 (1978).
[37]   William C. Tillinghast, "Source Control and Evaluation of Newspaper
Inaccuracies," Newspaper Research Journal 5(1):13-24 (1983).
[38]   Barkin and Levy, op. cit. See also, Ericson, et.al. op. cit. 330-331.
[39]   Ibid.
[40]   Whitney, op. cit.
[41]   Michael E. Cremedas, "Correction Policies in Local Television News: A
Survey," Journalism Quarterly, 69:166-172 (1992).
[42]   Donald Black, Sociological Justice (New York: Oxford University Press,
1989), 9-13.
[43]   Barkin and Levy,  op. cit., 324.
[44]   Ericson et.al., op. cit.
[45]   Neil Nemeth, The Newspaper Ombudsman as a Mechanism of Media
Accountability: The Case of The Courier-Journal, unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation,
Indiana University, 1991.
[46]   Ibid.
[47]   ASNE Journalism Credibility Project, located at
www.asne.org/works/jcp/jcpmain.htm
[48]   Kristin McGrath and Cecilie Garziano, "Dimensions of Media Credibility:
Highlights of the 1985 ASNE survey," Newspaper Research Journal 7(2):55-67
(1986). For an analysis of the 1985 ASNE survey data, see  Cecilie Gaziano and
Kristen McGrath, "Segments of the Public Most Critical of Newspaper's
Credibility: A Psychographic Analysis," Newspaper Research Journal 8(4):1-17
(1987). For a comprehensive listing of  articles pertaining to the issue of
journalism credibility, see ASNE Journalism Credibility Project Bibliography,
located at www.asne.org/works/jcp/jcpbibliography.htm
[49]   All coding was done by the authors, both of who teach journalism skills
courses. Both authors also worked as journalists for more than five years before
becoming full-time journalism instructors. We achieved an intercoder reliability
of 94 percent based on Holsti's formula. See, Ole R. Holsti, Content Analysis
for the Social Sciences and Humanities (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1969).
[50]   We discovered that the vast majority of published letters to the editor
fit these criteria.
[51]    The reference to the newspaper's conduct had to be specific in order to
be included in the study. We thus excluded letters that made reference to media
coverage in general or behavior of another news organization. Although many
letter writers  made reference to a specific story, commentary or editorial,  in
many instances the editors of the editorial page added more specific identifying
information including the date an item appeared in the paper and the section in
which it appeared.
[52]   We excluded from the study any topic that did not appear to have been
originally raised by one or  more readers.
[53]   Barkin and Levy,  op. cit. We did make a number of modifications to the
coding scheme that they used. We combined the "emphasis" classifications because
we found them confusing and ultimately unhelpful. We also added a category of
"dialogue with other writers" in order to take into account that we were coding
letters to the editor as well as correction boxes and we wanted to account that
some letters to the editor are in response to previously published letters to
the editor. We also changed  "status of likely offended party" to "likely
affected party" to reflect the fact that our study was broader than just dealing
with corrections. Not all of the people who may be affected by or comment on the
paper's behavior will be offended.
[54]   Barkin and Levy, op. cit.; Berry, op. cit.
[55]   We defined news content as all news and feature material. We defined
editorials as the newspaper's statements of opinion published on the editorial
page. We defined commentaries as personal opinion columns published throughout
the newspaper. However, it appeared that most reader response regarding
commentaries was triggered by commentaries published on the paper's opposite
editorial  (op. ed.) pages.
[56]   Barkin and Levy,  op. cit.; Whitney, op. cit.
[57]   We defined a  "wrong description" as an error in which the error in
question involves a misstatement of properties, features or characteristics. A
"wrong explanation" was defined as an incorrect statement of the process,
sequence of events or their consequences.
[58]   Although we have used the term ombudsman throughout this paper, the Rocky
Mountain News refers to its ombudsman as a reader's representative.  Whatever
the title, the duties are the same as an ombudsman.
[59]   Ibid.
[60]   Barkin and Levy,  op. cit.
[61]   Whitney, op. cit..
[62]   ASNE Journalism Credibility Project, Major Finding No. 1,  op. cit.
[63]   ASNE Journalism Credibility Project, Executive Summary, op. cit.
[64]   In fairness, we should note that we were not in a position in this study
to determine the degree to which reader comments and complaints about issues of
objectivity, fairness and the newspaper's impact on the community were raised
with the ombudsman by readers. This is not to say the ombudsmen in Denver and
Washington never discussed these issues. However, we observed that much of the
time when these issues were discussed it was in a larger context of how these
issues affect journalism generally.
[65]   Although we did not track the hometowns of the authors of the published
letters to the editor, it was apparent that a significant number of authors of
letters published in both Washington newspapers lived outside the circulation
area of both papers. This likely reflects the limited role that both papers play
as national newspapers. It is also noteworthy that a number of authors of
letters to the editor of the Washington Times noted that paper's role as a
conservative voice in Washington and as a conservative alternative to the
"liberal" Washington Post.
[66]   ASNE Journalism Credibility Project,  op. cit.

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