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?
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).
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.
"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