This is a job for... Ombudsman Writer of wrongs!
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At the Times in Los Angeles, Zacchino says the year before she and her staff of four began handling complaints, the paper had 526 subscriptions cancelled by readers for "editorial reasons." Between March 1999 and March 2000, that number fell to 43.Skip to next paragraph
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"I feel like shouting this from the rooftops," she says. "This is a solid reason for having this kind of position."
Ombudsmen have been in the US since 1967, when the editor at the Louiville Courier-Journal named one after reading articles on the need for internal criticism.
Today, there are about 40 ombudsmen in the US with another two dozen overseas. Though the numbers have increased since ONO was founded in 1980, only a tiny portion of the roughly 1,550 daily papers in the US are represented, and the position is still almost nonexistent in television newsrooms.
Although the role and impact of ombudsmen are just starting to be studied, some observers say the position is not all it should be.
The function of some ombudsmen "is more public relations rather than being the public's representative," says Kenneth Starck, former head of the School of Journalism at the University of Iowa and an ombudsman at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
The idea of an ombudsman is not well-liked in some newsrooms, where journalists can resent having their judgment questioned publicly.
"Some ombudsmen are seen as the enemy, rather than a meaningful connection between the paper and its readership," says Bob Steele, director of ethics programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Because of that, making changes in corrections policies, for example, can require patience. At The Washington Post, where the ombudsman position is filled by a non-Post journalist brought in every two years, Ms. Shipp says the position is "one method of trying to address [accountability]," but may not be "the most effective way."
"You have no power to demand or order people to do anything," says Shipp, who is on sabbatical from her regular post at the Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
Another reason not all papers have an ombudsman is that they can't afford it. The Seattle Times was among the first US papers to have one, but did away with the position in the early '90s when its budget was strapped.
The paper has found other ways to be accessible to readers, including through the editor's weekly column and by putting reporters' and editors' e-mail addresses and phone numbers in the paper. "Over time, our ability to communicate with readers has improved," says Mason Sizemore, the paper's president.
At the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the paper's staffers do week-long stints as reader advocates as part of ASNE's Journalism Credibility Project.
"I wouldn't have wanted to pick an ombudsman over a new environmental reporter, or a prison and death-penalty reporter," says managing editor Rosemary Armao.
Through their program, staff gain a better understanding of how important accuracy is to readers, and it has created good will in the community.
"The readers are amazingly sympathetic to us," she says. "They have become much more understanding of us."
After the Times ran its controversial front-page photo, Zacchino's column concluded by saying, "Obviously there's a great deal of human suffering that could flood the newspaper, and the Times does not have a practice of exploiting that. This [...] photo was shocking precisely because its front-page use was exceptional and was used to make the point that terrorism in Colombia had reached a level that warranted heightened attention from Times' readers."
After the column appeared, Zacchino says, people called her and said, "I'm so glad you explained it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society