Ombudsing

I’m on my way to Cambridge to be part of a panel at the international confab of ombudsmen. The topic: Is There a Shared Watchdog Role for the Public, the Blogs & Ombudsmen? As is my practice, I’ll share with you my notes, hoping for some of your wisdom on the topic:

* We need to see the news story as more of a process and less of a product. And once we do that, we open the door for collaboration with the public. So that relationship need no longer be solely about complaint and fault. It can be about cooperative effort, asking for each others’ help, networked journalism. So now, before the story is done, we can ask the public what they know that we don’t; we can ask them what they want to know; they can ask us to find facts. This profoundly changes the relationship between news organizations and their publics.

* Consider our ethic of the link. I’ve been arguing that news organizations should do what they do best and link to the rest. That is part of looking at news as a process: newspapers should link to others’ reporting and others’ criticism (and they are beginning to). This says that they are not the be-all-and-end-all and that the less they put themselves on a pedestal, the less that criticism and correction are seen as extraordinary events.

* Everyone’s an ombudsman inside the paper. Every reporter and editor has the responsibility to interact with the public over matters of fact and misunderstanding. I actually don’t suggest that every reporter respond to every letter. I remember a columnist who’d said something ridiculous — arguing, as I remember, that bicycle racing is not a sport — and he got scores of angry letters, of course; his editor bragged that he’d personally answered each one. I thought that was rather a waste of time; a blog or forum conversation would have kept the discussion going much more efficiently and openly.

* Everyone’s an ombudsman outside the paper. Is there a shared watchdog role for the public? Of course, there is. There always has been. Only now those watchdogs have a voice via blogs.

* Why should ombudsmen necessarily come from within the community of journalists? Yes, they may be able to understand the ins-and-outs of newspapers, all the better to dig into the organization and to explain it. But wouldn’t it also be better to have members of the public in the role? I argue that of the reasons Dan Okrent was such a good ombudsman at the Times — besides intelligence and orneriness — was that he came from outside newspapers (though not far outside).

* Stipulated: There are asses in the world. But we should not judge communities by their worst. That is cultural redlining. Yet that is what I hear news organizations do when they dip into blogs, forums, and comments: They obsess on the asses. But we all know who the asses are. It would be a much more valuable service to concentrate instead on finding the smart things smart people say, encouraging them to say more.

* And, by the way, when you confront the asses, they will generally back down like the bullies they are. If they don’t, then they are trolls in need of meds and it’s best to ignore them. But also remember that people dislike walls and especially dislike shouting at them. So don’t be shocked if they get mad speaking with no response.

* I think the best ombudsmanship comes not just from criticizing or justifying the actions within one organization but instead from reviewing and commenting on the broader context: Why shouldn’t the ombudsman talk about the habits of journalism in a broader sense, as practiced by competitors and by community members? When the ombudsman acts more as a critic than as a spokesman for either the community or the institution, the conversation is more compelling.

  • Mary Kenaston

    I agree this would be a nice way to function but I can’t honestly seeing most of the MSM reporters accepting any ‘help’ from the general public. Many of them have been too in love with the sounds of their own pontificating to acknowledge that they could possibly be wrong. Look at the MSM coverage of the lead up to Iraq and so many other social and economic issues. I like a lot of your recommendations and have come to rely much more on the blog world than the MSM for some more interesting and honest reporting. I have a variety of voices and views from many places in the world and am beginning to make use of the online access. I’ve recently started going to CounterPunch and The Independent (of London) as well as so many US sites. Some link to others. It’s been quite an education. As well as following your many interesting articles/comments on the changing role of the media as a whole. Thank you and I hope some of what you recommend comes to pass.