Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ombudsman Offer: Conscience, Detachment

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Ombudsman Offer: Conscience, Detachment

Article excerpt

AN OMBUDSMAN PROVIDES a newspaper with a "conscience" and the detachment required to maintain reader credibility--something editors can't provide--according to a former Washington Post ombudsman.

"Insiders are inescapably biased," said Joann Byrd, currently editorial page editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "You have to have at least some distance to listen respectfully to a complaint and take it seriously."

She spoke on a panel,"Victims and Remedies: A New Look at Accountability in the News Media," at the annual convention of the Society of Professional Journalists earlier this month.

People who believe they've been hurt by a news story need personal, even-handed attention, Byrd said, adding: "As much as we try to be open-minded about our own work, when people complain about it, we are defensive .... We start out assuming we are right and they just want the story done their way."

Because ombudsmen do not evaluate their own work, Byrd explained, they bring to newsrooms what editors cannot: a fresh eye that can spot things writers miss.

Moreover, she said, the ombudsman's independence allows her to disagree with a complainant. "Sometimes," she recalled, "I said the Washington Post was right. If an editor had said that, it would have been written off as defensiveness or arrogance,,or distance."

An ombudsman also can benefit a newspaper, she said, by finding such solutions such as a letter to the editor, an op-ed piece, a meeting with an editor, or a mention in the ombudsman's column.

And occasionally, the ombdusman can explain how things happen within the newspaper and can prepare readers to deal with the media in the future.

Although ombdusmen have no authority "except moral authority, they can exert influence," the panelist said, citing the Post as an example. "I could not make anything happen, but I raised a number of issues that got talked about the next time," she recalled. …

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