Printer Friendly

The loneliest job in the newsroom.

For more than 25 years, ombudsmen have critiqued coverage and opened newsroom doors for readers. But many editors still aren't convinced the job is necessary.

When readers get rowdy, journalists take cover. At the Hartford Courant, trouble began in the 1979 after the two-century-old newspaper was purchased by an out-of-town chain, sparking distrust among readers who had long considered the paper one of their own. When a new editor changed the focus of coverage from local to regional, the rancor turned to wrath.

First came the picket signs, then the "Un-Hartford Courant' bumper stickers. After angry subscribers hanged the editor in effigy for the eleventh time (he carved a notch in his desk each time), new owner Times Mirror wondered if it was time to get to know its readers better. The company brought in a new editor, Michael Davies, who named Features Editor Henry McNulty the Courant's first ombudsman.

Today, McNulty is still at it, critiquing coverage and acting as a liaison for readers concerned about everything from the comics page to headlines to the fairness of news articles and columns. McNulty estimates he's spoken with about 40,000 residents during his tenure, and no staff member has been publicly

pilloried in years.

At the Amarillo Globe-news, no unusual attention had been paid to readers' concerns until several hundred banded together to show their displeasure with "negative" coverage, such as reports of cost overruns at the West Texas State University president's mansion and a multi-part series on racial problems in a nearby town. Prodded by billionaire T. Boone Pickens, then-chairman of the West Texas State board of regents, readers launched a subscription and advertising boycott in late 1987.

They also started an activist group, Panhandle Citizens for a Better Amarillo Newspaper, and one afternoon filled 1,500 seats at the civic center with flag-waving members and supporters. Soon after, the paper's editors decided they'd better make some changes. Chief among them was hiring ombudsman Jeff Langley, who since early 1988 has been answering complaints and writing a twice-weekly column.

McNulty, Langley and 38 other ombudsmen at newspapers in the United States and Canada carry on the risky business of soothing readers and publicly airing their employers' and colleagues' dirty linen. This month, as the Organization of News Ombudsmen gathers for its annual convention, the profession marks the 26th year since the Louisville Courier-journal hired the first ombudsman.

Although the specialty has grown over the years - larger newspapers such as the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune are now among the converts - more than 97 percent of the 1,700 U.S. and Canadian dailies don't have ombudsmen. The latest to join the ranks have been the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun, both last year. But two others, the Seattle Times and the Winnipeg Free Press, dismissed their in-house critics.

The idea of hiring ombudsmen grew out of the anti-establishment fervor and idealism that marked the Vietnam War era and caused many Americans to lose trust in the media. The word is derived from the Swedish term for "intermediary," investigators who aid citizens with their grievances against the Swedish government. The notion was suggested for American journalism in a March 1967 Esquire article by media critic Ben Bagdikian, who says he was concerned about the number of family-owned and independent newspapers that were being bought by chains. Three months later, A.H. Raskin, an assistant editorial page editor at the New York Times, concluded in the Times Sunday magazine that newspapers' "unshatterable smugness" was a "long-range menace" that should be confronted with a Department of Internal Criticism." Eight days later, the Louisville Courier-journal appointed one of its editors, John Herchenroeder, to be its ombudsman.

Unlike newspapers, few radio or television stations have ombudsmen, according to David Bartlett, president of the Radio-television News Directors Association. (There have been some efforts to give air time for criticism or letters to the editor, and CBS did employ an ombudsman, Emerson Stone, for five years in the mid-1980s.) Bartlett says ombudsmen aren't as necessary for broadcasters because the Federal Communications Commission requires each outlet to keep a public file of listener and viewer comments, and each is "regulated by a very competitive marketplace" that most newspapers don't have.

Since the profession's beginning at the Courier-journal, the need for ombudsmen has been the subject of debate. Some editors argue that an internal critic is the best way for newspapers, especially larger ones, to maintain credibility and stay in touch with readers (see "Newspapers Need Ombudsmen," November 1990). Others say that the position is expensive, redundant and self-indulgent: A good editor should have an understanding of readers' concerns. And besides, if having ombudsmen is such a great idea, why aren't there more of them?

Bagdikian sees the limited number of ombudsmen as "a short-sightedness [by editors] that is a kind of stupidity." He says he understands that most smaller papers can't afford in-house critics, but he doesn't accept the same argument from larger papers. "The public has grown increasingly frustrated with news coverage," he says, a situation he believes could be improved. Most newspaper executives are "paranoid about criticism," he charges, because they believe controversy might make the paper less attractive to advertisers.

Yet sometimes even ombudsman boosters have second thoughts. "I was a fairly early and enthusiastic advocate when the ombudsman movement got started," says Robert Haiman, former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times and now managing director of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "It made sense, because newspapers were impersonal, just a big building. The links that once existed between newspapers and their readers were being frayed and tom."

Problems arose at the 360,000-circulation Times in 1980 when reader advocate Dorothy Smiljanich wrote a column explaining why the paper had decided to send only black reporters to cover a recent race riot.

Several black reporters felt the column was racist, and Smiljanich says she was told to apologize in print or resign. Haiman says he understood her point of view, but "sometimes even if you don't mean to hurt people, you do and you apologize." She chose to resign.

Haiman then took some time to "rethink my enthusiasms" about the position. He decided to eliminate it. "If the problem is that readers feel a distance from the editor, then the worst thing you can do - not the best thing - is to put someone in that space and further block their access," he says, although he does recognize the need at major papers.

Executive Editor Douglas Clifton of the Miami Herald also considers ombudsmen "a barrier" unless the position comes with the power to make changes. Editors "need to feel the wrath of the readers," he says. Frankly, I'm not willing to surrender that judgment call on whether we did right or wrong."

The "surrender of power" argument is common. Ben Bradlee, the former Washington Post executive editor who appointed the paper's first ombudsman in 1971, sums it up this way: "Editors don't like having someone with their noses in their business all the time."

At the New York Times, where Raskin made his case for ombudsmen 26 years ago, former Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal acknowledges that certain in-house decisions may need to be discussed publicly and in the early 1980s launched an "Editor's Notes" column to do that. However, neither he nor any other Times editor has ever hired an ombudsman. Now a columnist, Rosenthal argues that an ombudsman makes editors lazy because someone else takes responsibility for the paper's mistakes. He also dismisses the frequent charge that many newspapers evade criticism. "Quite the contrary," he says. "A newspaper is one of the most public businesses in the world. We print our errors every day."

But that's not enough, says Hartford's Henry McNulty; editors and publishers don't have time to do it properly. And calling everyone in the newsroom an ombudsman, as some editors have, sounds "a little like saying everybody's supposed to keep the newsroom clean. |Everyone' quickly becomes no one."

McNulty and others talk of the "rain spout" theory, which says an editor may not hear complaints if they're taken by different people in the newsroom and diffused. An ombudsman, however, "funnels these complaints in a steady stream that will have a real impact" McNulty says. Adds Richard Harwood, who was the Washington Post's first ombudsman and last year completed a second two-year term: "The job of the editor has changed so much over the years. They can have a budget of $60 million a year, a 700-member staff, endless meetings with dozens of assistant managing editors." Besides, he says, "you couldn't read every word in the paper in less than eight to 10 hours.... The job is more use to editors than to readers."

Despite their supposed independence, ombudsmen sometimes do get dismissed. At least three have lost their jobs since the Organization of News Ombudsmen was launched in 1980 - two in the past year.

In Seattle, Colleen Patrick's two-year contract at the Times was not renewed a year ago this month in what she was told was a cost-cutting measure, leaving the paper without an ombudsman for the first time in two decades. Patrick believes her "pro-active" approach had as much to do with it. The Winnipeg Free Press made no secret about why it forced its critic out: It didn't like what he had to say. Barry Mullin, a 21-year veteran at the paper, resigned rather than agree to allow the editor pre-publication review of his weekly column.

"This was probably the most critical moment in the history of ombudsmen since what happened in Florida in 1980," when Smiljanich was dismissed, because it cast doubt on the credibility of their work, says Arthur Nauman, ombudsman at the Sacramento Bee.

Many ombudsmen felt the same way after Mullin resigned last May. The day he left, Mullin had criticized editors in a column for using too many puffy news features. As an example, he cited early reports of the biggest story in North America - the Los Angeles riots - that had been buried on the last page of the last section. The front page, meanwhile, included features on "local heroes" and edible golf tees. (Managing Editor John Sullivan has said early wire stories only mentioned "rumors" of riots and more detailed articles were placed on the front page once confirmed.) Mullin has sued the paper for damages.

Colleen Patrick says she is still smarting from the way she was treated at the Seattle Times, where she says she had "no support" from the staff. Not that she was surprised. "The publisher himself would write me letters saying essentially that what I thought was absurd," she says. Among other criticisms, Patrick argued in columns that the paper should stop accepting tobacco advertising and "gouging" bereaved readers to run funeral notices. She also recruited volunteers to help readers write letters to the editor and opinion pieces.

Times Editor Michael Fancher says that Patrick's pro-active approach" had nothing to do with the decision to eliminate her $62,000 position, but that it also wasn't simply a budget decision. He agrees that "a newspaper needs an independent voice of scrutiny" and says the Times may reinstate the position eventually. But because Patrick spent much of her time on reader outreach, "the way she did the job did not spark discussions in the newsroom," he says. In addition, "we had fallen into the trap of editors no longer seeing themselves as reader advocates. It was just too easy to throw all calls to the ombudsman."

John Brown, ombudsman at the Edmonton Journal in Canada for the past 15 years, says the Seattle case "strikes at the very heart of the whole problem" - that an ombudsman can be considered just another employee. "The Seattle editor said if he could hire a reporter or editor for the price of an ombudsman, he should do that. And so he did."

Even in a crunch, says Ben Bradlee, the position should be among the last to go. "Otherwise, people would say, |See? Their hearts were never in it. I told you this was all bullshit.'"

To ombudsmen and most of their employers, putting a price tag on the position downgrades it to window dressing, which is how many critics see the position anyway. While the Organization of News Ombudsmen asks members to fight for fairness, accuracy and accountability, enhance their newspapers' credibility and inform editors about talk-of-the-town issues, many admit their jobs mostly involve helping readers with less lofty concerns.

"Most of the stuff ombudsmen do is chickenshit," Harwood says. "The comics, the horoscopes - |you forgot the Aries' - [that's) about 90 percent." Rather than dismissing those duties, however, Harwood and others see them as essential. "How many times do you leave out the horoscope or misspell somebody's name?" he asks. "If your paper is full of this stuff, its credibility gets hurt. Dan Quayle misspelled potato and people went nuts, yet we do that 100 times a day."

Adds John Sweeney, ombudsman at the Wilmington News Journal in Delaware: People are happy you listen to them, and surprised you can be so critical. They think you're the only honest person there."

That readers appreciate a patient ear was one finding of a small 1986 study by researchers at San Diego State University. Most of 350 readers surveyed said they were more satisfied with the San Diego Union because it had an ombudsman - regardless of how minor their complaints were. Citing a similar study that appeared in the Newspaper Research Journal, the researchers concluded that beyond the practical benefits, an ombudsman "may be one of the newspaper's most effective public relations tools."

Perhaps more important, a 1984 study of libel suits by Professor Gil Cranberg of the University of Iowa found that angry readers were less likely to sue if they had been treated fairly and politely when they complained. Nearly nine in 10 libel plaintiffs said a poor response from the paper had encouraged them to call a lawyer.

"Most of the time the first person that an angry reader talks to is an editor or reporter who's harried, defensive, on deadline," says Robert Kierstead, former ombudsman of the Boston Globe. "So they don't get the right response. What most people will settle for is a good faith effort by the ombudsman to look into the matter."

Consider what transpired at the Globe in 1986 after U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill announced his retirement following three decades in Congress. A native son, state Sen. George Bachrach, had a head start to fill the open seat, until famous son Joseph P Kennedy Il moved to the district and announced his candidacy. The 34-year-old Kennedy, Kierstead says, "could barely put three words together" and had little experience in politics.

Nevertheless, the Globe endorsed Kennedy before the Democratic primary, and Bachrach and many angry readers protested. Rumors circulated that the editorial page staff had overwhelmingly supported Bachrach but had been overruled. Many readers asked exactly what kind of backroom deal the Globe was cutting with the Kennedys.

What Kierstead discovered surprised him: The rumors were true.

Of the editorial page's eight staffers, five had supported Bachrach and one had abstained, although there had been no official vote. The two backing Kennedy happened to be the editorial page editor and deputy editor. As managers, it was their decision to make.

It was up to Kierstead to calm angry readers, reassure Bachrach that the Kennedys had no undue influence, and somehow demystify the Globe's endorsement process. What he wrote was a tactful, informative column in which Editorial Page Editor Martin Nolan explained that on the editorial staff, "Everyone has his or her say, but [this] is not a democracy."

Kierstead, who has since become an assistant managing editor, remembers it as "one of the most popular columns I wrote." And even though Bachrach eventually lost the race, Kierstead says he was the first person to call with praise.

During his nine years as ombudsman, Kierstead figures he spoke or met with some 33,000 readers. Many were appreciative. But he says that inside the newsroom, the ombudsman usually isn't as popular. "When you first have the job, you want to talk about the Red Sox game last night or something," he says. And you walk over to talk ... and you can see the blood just drain out of their faces."

"No ombudsman that I know could run for dog catcher in a newsroom and get elected," adds former Baltimore Sun Publisher Michael Davies, who established ombudsmen at his last three papers, the Kansas City Star, the Hartford Courant and the Sun. "It depends on the individual, of course, but they are not popular people." He concedes that journalists don't help matters by being very thin-skinned."

At the Los Angeles Times, media critic David Shaw (who's not technically an ombudsman but often writes about his own newspaper's coverage), recounts some particularly petty reactions. He says one colleague refused to allow him to push the button on the water cooler for her. The same woman later walked back into the rain after he opened a door for her, and a second co-worker gave him the silent treatment. (She absent-mindedly greeted him about a year later, but then corrected herself, "I forgot that was you.")

In Hartford, Henry McNulty says his photo has been tacked on a newsroom dartboard. "Nobody likes to be criticized; and once criticized, no one likes to [have it] publicized," explains McNulty. And then there's the story of the Washington Post ombudsman who, at his goodbye party, was presented with three cakes labeled "Picky," "Picky" and " Picky."

As picky as ombudsmen may be, Barry Mullin notes, "[reporters] are the masters of their fate. If they did everything right, I would have had nothing to write about."

What Do Readers Want?

Each March complaints are put on hold when members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen gather to ponder what readers really want.

Year after year, they come up with the same answer: Plenty.

Ombudsmen say readers want newsprint that won't dirty their hands, funnier comics, better crossword puzzles and accurate television listings. Says Pat Riley of the Orange County Register: "If anything happens with the comics and the crossword puzzle, you should go on vacation."

Readers also value fairness. "One bad headline can cost us several subscriptions - even if it only runs in early editions," says John Sweeney of the Wilmington News Journal. After the Delaware daily printed the headline "Clinton Walks Away a Winner" following the last presidential debate, the calls poured in from readers of the early edition, even though the headline had been changed in all the editions that followed.

Even in photographs, balance is key, as Joann Byrd discovered a few months after joining the Washington Post last year. Reader outcry led to her thoughtful column on whether the Post had deliberately used mostly flattering photos of Bill Clinton and less than complimentary shots of Ross Perot and George Bush (she concluded there was some basis for the complaint). Other ombudsmen say they heard similar gripes during the campaign.

Readers also have special needs, ombudsmen say. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, for example, the residents of northern Florida needed a dose of good news. So when those living in Jacksonville opened their Florida Times-Union and found not a word about the previous evening's Miss America pageant - even though a Jacksonville woman had won the crown - the newspaper was deluged with angry calls. Ombudsman Mike Clark patiently explained that because the contest stretched past midnight, there was little chance of getting the story in most editions, but he says few readers were pacified with that explanation. They expected better.

Readers especially don't like misspelled names, particularly in clippables such as obits; the mislabeling of anything ("There's always somebody out there who knows that's not a B-2 bomber, that's a B-I," says John Brown of the Edmonton Journal); or bad taste, especially in photos.

That last one can be tricky. Consider the Halloween photo that led to the Sacramento Bee's first-ever front page apology last year.

"It was just a feature photo of two little girls in costume," says ombudsman Art Nauman. The photo, however, depicted a black girl in what resembled a maid's outfit putting lipstick on a white girl in a frilly party dress, recalling for many readers antebellum roles. What the hundreds of readers who complained couldn't see was that the black girl was actually dressed as a dancer. Her top hat was on the floor, out of camera range. "That photo probably elicited more negative comments than just about anything I've ever seen," Nauman says.

And hold those bloody accident photos. And those shots of protesters in Baltimore who marched nude to protest fur sales. "Hypocrites," one reader told the Baltimore Sun's Ernie Imhoff. "They're wearing shoes and boots made of animal hide.... Besides, I just had a bypass operation and can't get too excited."

Also, no broken heart" photos of people who have just heard that a family member was killed. And no funeral coverage. And enough with the "don't try this at home" photos. At the Hartford Courant, Henry McNulty says every shot that appears of two children sharing a bike elicits charges that the paper is setting a bad example.

While we're at it, how about more good news? John Brown has heard that request often and says that in response, the paper recently began a "good deeds" column. "People say, |You never write about our service groups and clubs, but if the treasurer runs off with the funds, you'll be all over it,'" he says. "Of course, they're right."
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Maryland
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:ombudsmen
Author:McKenna, Kate
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:The best in the business.
Next Article:Ben Franklin rubbed rulers the wrong way.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters