Notes from an ombudsman

NPR’s Alicia Shepard calls it “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” As NPR’s ombudsman, Shepard serves as a bridge between public radio listeners and staffers, explaining each side to the other. A large part of her job involves responding to complaints and challenging the newsroom to do better journalism.

Much of this is done publicly, via her online column. “It’s not enough to have internal standards,” Shepard says, “you also need transparency.” So when she discovered NPR had aired a story that might have been based on bogus information, she discussed it with everyone involved and also wrote about it.

Shepard gets more than 300 emails a week and dozens of listener phone calls. And what she hears most often is that NPR is biased, especially in its reporting on the Middle East. In response, NPR has stopped reporting live from the region and added a layer of fact-checking. The foreign editor must approve all Middle East stories in newscasts as well as correspondent reports. NPR also set up a special Web page where it posts all Middle East stories. “[NPR] want[s] people to judge [it] on the totality of the coverage,” Shepard says, “and [they] make it easy for you to evaluate it.”

In a recent blog entry, she tried to explain how NPR decides what language to use in stories about torture. Her column touched off a torrent of comments, many of them harshly critical. “Language is explosive,” Shepard says, and the use of some terms may suggest that a journalist is taking sides. Her basic advice to NPR journalists? “Be specific. Describe, don’t characterize.”

In general, Shepard favors what she calls “people first” language. For example, instead of referring to someone as an “abortion doctor,” she suggests a longer phrase: “a doctor who performs abortions.”

Shepard’s two-year, no-cut contract with NPR runs through October of this year. The duration is standard for ombudsmen, a few of whom have told me that the job is so taxing they couldn’t possibly do it longer. But Shepard thinks it’s too short, saying it took her six months just to learn how NPR works. “It’s like learning a beat,” she says. And, tough as it is, she’d like to stay on “because the job offers a chance to help keep journalism at a high level.”

Ombudsmen don’t have a long history in US newsrooms. The first one was appointed in 1967 to serve readers of two Louisville, Ky., newspapers. NPR says it was the first broadcast organization to name an ombudsman, in 2000. There have never been that many of them, but now their ranks are shrinking. In a recent column, The Washington Post’s Andy Alexander said at least 14 have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2008.

In the Internet age, anyone can fact-check a news report and shout to the world if errors go uncorrected. That would seem sufficient evidence that ombudsman duties have been usurped by an army of online “citizen editors.”

The blogosphere has provided valuable additional oversight that is holding traditional media more accountable. And it has spawned self-described “press critics,” many of whom delight in ridiculing mainstream media and attacking any ombudsman’s column that isn’t brutal enough to leave a blood stain.

But despite this expanded oversight, ombudsmen view themselves as more essential than ever. Many…reported being deluged with queries and complaints from increasing numbers of readers, viewers and listeners.

It’s no doubt hard to justify spending money on an ombudsman when the newsroom budget is being slashed.  And it’s easy to dismiss an ombudsman’s defense of his value as simply self-interest. But there’s a difference between having citizens point out errors and flaws, and having an independent observer inside a news organization with “a hall pass and a platform,” as New York Times executive editor Bill Keller describes an ombudsman.

Ombudsmen like Alexander and Shepard may never be beloved, but they do play an important role. Their presence is a clear signal that the news organization cares about the public’s concerns and will take steps to respond. And they can also serve as a deterrent. The knowledge that someone is watching, someone with the authority to draw public attention to errors and ethical missteps, may help keep them from happening in the first place.

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