Ombudsmen's Interactions with Public through Columns

By Nemeth, Neil; Sanders, Craig | Newspaper Research Journal, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Ombudsmen's Interactions with Public through Columns


Nemeth, Neil, Sanders, Craig, Newspaper Research Journal


Newspapers that appoint an ombudsman hope to become more responsive to public concerns about the paper's performance.(1) Presumably, having an ombudsman respond to reader concerns enhances a newspaper's credibility(2) and studies of the public's perception of ombudsmen support this assertion.(3)

However, critics argue that ombudsmen field primarily minor complaints and offer little substantive analysis of their paper's shortcomings.(4) Some editors believe having an ombudsman makes a newspaper less responsive because the position places a buffer between journalists and the public.(5)

This article seeks to bring into sharper focus how ombudsmen interact with the public.(6)

Background

The modern newspaper ombudsman movement began in 1967 as part of an effort to reverse declining public confidence in the press.(7) The late A.H. Raskin proposed the creation of a department of internal criticism to be headed by an ombudsman. Raskin saw the ombudsman as a critic who would scrutinize the newspaper's behavior and as a complaint manager who would resolve reader complaints.(8)

Soon after Raskin's commentary appeared, the Louisville Courier-Journal and Louisville Times appointed an ombudsman.(9) Since then, the number of U.S. newspapers employing an ombudsman has stayed between 30 and 40.(10) Some newspapers that appointed an ombudsman later abolished the position.(11)

Typically, ombudsmen perform the roles of complaint manager, in- house critic and public relations practitioner.(12) Because an ombudsman monitors the behavior of his or her own newspaper, critics say this compromises an ombudsman's independence and loyalty to readers.(13) In responding to reader complaints, ombudsmen may focus more on explaining the newspaper's view of its behavior than on critically examining the paper's behavior.(14)

Ombudsmen tend not to perceive reader loyalty as the antithesis of employer loyalty, nor do they believe their loyalty is divided. Some researchers have found the ombudsman's role orientation difficult to define unambiguously because ombudsmen embrace conflicting role orientations.(15)

Ombudsmen are reluctant to acknowledge that they practice public relations on their newspaper's behalf.(16) This may reflect the adversarial attitude that many journalists(17) hold toward public relations.(18) Although ombudsmen may consider their work more oriented toward truth telling than the press agentry behavior that many journalists associate with public relations,(19) the context in which the ombudsman position evolved and the reasons newspapers give for appointing ombudsmen(20) suggest that ombudsmen play a public relations role.

Public relations involves managing an organization's communications with the public.(21) One goal of public relations is to achieve public understanding of an organization's reasons for its behavior. Increasingly, organizations also seek to understand the public's view of the organization's behavior.(22)

Maintaining satisfactory relations with the public is the substance of public relations practice.(23) Failure to maintain satisfactory relations with the public could subject an organization to such difficulties as protests, boycotts, litigation or increased government regulation.(24) Organizations that cultivate good relationships with the public enjoy more freedom from external interference with the organization's affairs.(25)

A newspaper that fails to maintain good relations with the public may lose credibility as a source of information, which in turn could trigger declining circulation and revenue. The newspaper also risks losing influence in the community, which could endanger press freedom.(26)

Some commentators believe having an ombudsman is good public relations practice for newspapers.(27) Ombudsmen themselves strongly endorse as important to their job some activities that are public relations in nature. …

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