Ombudsmen take their independence seriously


THE ORGANIZATION of News Ombudsmen encompasses nearly 100 men and women worldwide who represent the readers, viewers and listeners of their newspapers and television and radio networks. Now in its 25th year, the organization's annual conference has often served as a support group for members, who deal daily with complaints from an increasingly polarized and frustrated public. One might say the pronunciation of the group's acronym - "Oh, no!" - is particularly appropriate.

This year's meeting, held last month in London, was notable for making news when ONO rejected the efforts of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's two new ombudsmen to join.

The corporation, a quasi-governmental organization that helps provide funds for National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System, does not report or present news. CPB's recent decision to have two ombudsmen - a conservative and a liberal to balance what its chairman sees as a liberal bias in public programming - carried with it the possibility of pushing ONO into the political and ideological arena.

In rejecting their applications for full membership (they became associate members, without voting privileges), the group made the decision to remain independent and free of partisanship and to remain committed to representing readers, not governmental organizations. This comes at a time when an increasing number of media, such as The Sun, have public editor and ombudsman positions designed to make their operations more responsive to criticism.

But even inside ONO, independence is defined by the nature of the news organization one represents. Many international ombudsmen have employment contracts that clearly separate them from the institutions they report on. With some notable exceptions - including The Washington Post and The New York Times - public editors and ombudsmen in the United States generally work directly for their organizations. Some report to the executive editors; some, like myself, to the publisher.

The question is: Can someone who is employed by an organization have enough independence to make critical judgments about it and represent readers without interference?

Some think not. After my April 21 column concluded that most of the list of grievances from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration about The Sun's reporting and editing did not represent inaccuracies and distortions, reader Bob Magee said: "I find it hard to understand why The Sun believes it can evaluate the situation by having an 'independent voice' who is employed by The Sun. Could you have truly investigated the problem with an objective eye?"

Joe Tiperman wrote: "Your findings are nothing more than the same bias you are investigating."

But others disagree. Commenting on my May 8 column about The Sun's circulation decline, Cornelius Shea wrote: "Your column is perhaps the most honest and open commentary I have ever seen in that space."

These contrasting views highlight the different perceptions a public editor inspires.

The authority to make a difference rests with the credibility I develop with readers and with the relationship I have with The Sun's staff. I inevitably fail to satisfy either on some occasions, but my efforts must be based on what best serves readers, not on what best serves the interests of the institution.

The Sun's management endorses this concept. It understands that, in the long run, serving the readers also serves the best interests of the institution. It does not attempt to interfere or dictate the content of my column.

A public editor seeks to break down traditional newsroom resistance to outside criticism. The credibility a public editor needs to convince the staff of the importance of reader feedback and the need for more transparent reporting exists only if he is perceived as independent. Without that, the position is only window dressing.

Not surprisingly, columns that support or clarify the newspaper's work often generate more negative reaction from the public than critical columns. There are occasions, however, when standing by the newspaper's work is the proper response, despite giving the appearance of being an apologist.

It is essential for a public editor to distinguish between organized and partisan lobbying efforts and readers' legitimate and independent criticism. The increased scrutiny of news organizations, the polarization of opinion and the vociferous nature of the discourse can overwhelm reader representatives.

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler said the job is very stressful and it had come to "totally dominate" his life. Recently departed New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent also talked about how demanding the job was but noted in his final column that compared with being a reporter in Iraq and Jerusalem, being public editor was easy.

Most readers have little interest in the news of ONO's decision not to accept the two CPB ombudsmen for full membership. But what that decision represents - the effort to remain nonpartisan and politically neutral - should tell readers that the group takes the issue of independence very seriously.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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