Hanif on Media

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Who will hold news media accountable? At Ombudsmen meet in Oxford, reminders that PB Post did it right

June 5th · 1 Comment · ONO, Organization of News Ombudsmen

“In today’s digital media environment, ombudsmen and news/press councils are all rethinking what they do,” says John Hamer, of the Washington News Council, commenting on the Organization of News Ombudsmen’s annual convention at Oxford University May 12-15.

For example, Hamer cited Charlie Beckett, directof of POLIS, London School of Economics, Department of Media and Communications, who accurately observed that “Journalism is no longer a product, but a process.”

Without presuming to tell other news ombudsmen how to do their jobs, I concur with Beckett’s well-established observation that journalists “need to reinvent themselves.”

With specific regard to ombudsmen, however, it is my sense that too many media commentators — particularly those who never have actually served as an ombudsman responsible to a news organization’s readers, viewers or listeners — confuse the concepts of “watchdog for the media” and ombudsman for a media outlet.

Regarding the latter, Beckett captured the essence of how well The Palm Beach Post served its readers during my two-decade tenure, the longest of any news ombudsman in the world. He noted (a point also picked up by ONO Executive Director Jeffrey Dvorkin), that ombudsmen must act as:

Facilitators, not judges

Moderators, not regulators

Forums, not courts

Educators, not enforcers

Those sentiments capture the way The Post’s weekly ombudsman column worked: as a reader’s forum, in which the critical aspects were readers’ concerns and staff response. (See herehere, herehere, here, here, here, here …) I basically served as its editor.

Over the years that column was promoted, often in quarter- and full-page ads, as the place where the newspaper conducted a conversation with its readers regarding issues of accuracy and fairness in its news and features offerings.

For all that, for the ombudsman’s independence, and for my opportunity  to provide general interest offerings as well from time to time (see hereherehere, and here), credit went to the paper’s then management, particularly Publisher Tom Giuffrida and Editor Edward Sears.

Overall, the media transparency and accountability introduced in countless columns by news ombudsmen has contributed mightily to the public’s heightened sophistication regarding how news organizations work(ed).

There’s a direct connection, in fact, to the public’s increased ability to question editors’ decisions, as well as to define for themselves what is news.

That increased consumer awareness, hardly common before the advent of news ombudsmen, is another factor exacerbating the digital challenges for journalists, and ombudsmen, today.


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