Newspaper Ombudsmanship as Viewed by Ombudsmen and Their Editors

By Starck, Kenneth; Eisele, Julie | Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Newspaper Ombudsmanship as Viewed by Ombudsmen and Their Editors


Starck, Kenneth, Eisele, Julie, Newspaper Research Journal


As a mechanism to promote journalistic accountability and credibility, the ombudsman has enjoyed persistent albeit limited success. The idea - originated in Sweden nearly two centuries ago to spur responsibility and responsiveness(1) - came to United States newsrooms more than 30 years ago. The Louisville Courier-Journal and Times established the first ombudsman position in 1967.(2)

A few other newsrooms in the United States and abroad liked the idea and adapted it to their own organizations. The word ombudsman itself has not fared well. It is an alien term to many and labeled sexist by some, though the Swedish term presumably is gender free. As a result, news ombudsmen occasionally go by other designations, such as reader representative or reader advocate, public editor or listening post editor.

By 1980 ombudsman activity, though never a full-blown movement, had generated sufficient interest to result in establishment of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO). Over the years membership in ONO has grown slowly but consistently. Today the organization has about 65 active and associate members who come from nearly a dozen countries, but in the United States fewer than 40 of the 1,520 daily newspapers have ombudsmen, or the equivalent.(3) The ombudsman position has been seen by some media professionals as a tool to enhance newspaper integrity and credibility. Several scholars assert that the ombudsman position can make a significant contribution to media accountability by raising questions internally and by writing columns that address issues of press behavior.(4)

Though news ombudsmen have been around for some time, we know painfully little about how the concept has worked. In general, an ombudsman receives and analyzes complaints from readers about concerns such as fairness, balance, taste and accuracy, then suggests appropriate remedies to correct or clarify media reports. Demographic data about ombudsmen have been compiled, as have reports about their tasks. But major questions remain relatively unexplored: What is the impact of an ombudsman - on readers? on the newsroom? on the audience? on credibility?

The focus of this study was to examine newsroom views - specifically those of editors and ombudsmen - concerning the role of the ombudsman. It was part of a larger newspaper credibility project conducted under the auspices of the Ethics and Values Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). Along with such other organizations as the Freedom Forum, the Niamey Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, ASNE has mounted a massive campaign to understand and respond to the growing public distrust of the news media.(5) Polls show that many Americans believe the press is antagonistic, arrogant, biased and inaccurate.(6)

Doubtless, other factors contributing to newspapers' renewed interest in credibility and in such concepts as that of the ombudsman have been dramatic circulation declines and emergence of new media. In the 1990s major newspapers in the U.S. lost thousands of readers.(7) Some media experts cite predictions that fewer than half of all Americans will read newspapers by the year 2010.(8) Newspapers are examining or re-examining ways to maintain their foothold in an expanding media spectrum and at the same time fulfill their information function responsibly. The issue may be whether journalistic standards can be maintained in light of bottom line demands. As a group of news personnel put it at a panel discussion in 1997, good journalism and the bottom line are intertwined.(9)

Reviewing ombudsman research

A few issues pertaining to ombudsmen have been examined in the trade and popular press.(10) Fewer have been subjected to systematic, i.e., scholarly, inquiry.

Early research dealt with the number of newspapers with ombudsmen and an exploration of ombudsman responsibilities.(11) One study focused on staff views of the ombudsman, suggesting that staff members, after initial resentment toward the position, came to support the idea. …

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