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This is a job for... Ombudsman Writer of wrongs!

By Kim CampbellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 2000

When The Los Angeles Times published a front-page photo on May 17 of a Colombian mother with a bomb around her neck, it drew fire from readers. How could the Times print such a shocking photo of a woman waiting to die from the device forced on her by guerrillas?

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The answer came in a column written by readers' representative Narda Zacchino, who has been fielding calls and demystifying newspaper practices - like the choosing of Page 1 photos -since her position was created last year.

At a time when the public is increasingly skeptical about media credibility, more news outlets are improving communication with their audiences and owning up to their mistakes through people designated to deal with them.

Readers find an impartial ally in the newsroom

Although in the US the number of news ombudsmen -a Scandinavian word for someone who handles complaints -remains small, the ranks have grown in recent years.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Miami Herald created such positions, with at least 10 more added in the last 12 months in cities like Honolulu; Akron, Ohio; White Plains, N.Y.; and at National Public Radio. Several have been added overseas as well, including at The Guardian in London (see story, right).

"An increasing number of editors and publishers are seeing the wisdom of it," says Arthur Nauman, who spent 17 years in the position at the Sacramento Bee. "We aren't the end all and be all, [but we are] one way to create and enhance and maintain credibility."

Organizations are signing on for reasons ranging from fatter budgets to wanting to better serve diverse and growing communities, as in Miami and at NPR.

"This is the right thing for NPR," says president and CEO Kevin Klose. "When you gain a national audience, how does someone sitting far from Washington, D.C., [NPR's home] figure out who to call?"

Another influence is a study published in 1998 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), which showed that a majority of the public thinks news is inaccurate and biased and that the press is out of touch with mainstream Americans.

"The great takeaway from that whole study is that papers lack credibility," says Ms. Zacchino, explaining that the study had influenced the creation of her job.

Some papers, like The New York Times, prefer to have calls and e-mails go directly to reporters and editors so they can be dealt with by the people who know the most about the stories. USA Today and this paper also take that approach.

But observers say that often the public and journalists don't connect in a significant and civilized way.

"People do try to get through to reporters and editors, but they get the brush off," says E.R. Shipp, ombudsman at The Washington Post. "The ombudsman is there to fill a void."

Ombudsmen field all kinds of questions - from "Why does the ink come off on my hands?" to "How can I trust you if you are sharing advertising revenue with the subjects of your articles?"

While their duties are as varied as their titles, most ombudsmen spend their time listening and responding to readers, writing columns on related issues -and relaying readers' views to the staff. A few also write corrections. Many are just starting to deal with Internet products as well.

Ideally, they are editorially independent of the newsroom - able to address the public's concerns without fear of censorship from their employers. Though a few papers tap outside people like journalism professors, the position is usually filled from within. Either way, many ombudsmen will not use "we" or "our" in their columns in order to maintain objectivity.

"You solve a good part of your problems simply by returning your phone calls," says Elissa Papirno, reader representative at the Hartford Courant and president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO).