A ‘terrible loss for Post readers’: Is journalism compromised without ombudsmen?

The Washington Post announced their elimination of an ombudsman position following the expiration of former ombudsman Patrick Pexton’s contract Friday. The paper will instead elect a “reader representative” that will not have the same independence as former ombudsmen.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 4, 2013


“Those duties [of an ombudsman] are as critical today as ever,” Publisher Katharine Weymouth wrote on Friday. “Yet it is time that the way these duties are performed evolves.”

But many argue that “reader representatives” will not adequately investigate concerns about ethics, fairness and accuracy, considering they will not have fixed contracts and thus risk termination. NPR likened the new position to a customer relations representative, whose chief alliances will be to the publication and not to its audience. Instead of conducting independent investigations, the new official will field problems to the appropriate authorities who will surely answer reader’s concerns in publicist jargon. And, notably, these problems will be addressed privately, not in a weekly column. Axing ombudsmen is a “terrible loss for Post readers,” Andy Alexander, former Post ombudsman told Media Matters. He added that many might interpret the decision as driven more by desire to eliminate a critical voice than to save money.

“Let’s be honest: no editor or reporter at The Post or any other news outlet … will subject himself or herself to being publicly questioned if he or she doesn’t have to,” Edward Schumacher-Matos of NPR wrote. “This is human nature.”

One of the critical responsibilities of an ombudsman is “helping management understand that there is not a choice between great journalism and corporate relations,” Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, told Media Matters. But a “reader representative” will likely forgo this duty, instead accepting a niche more akin to public relations.

Other publications, including The Boston Globe, have eliminated their ombudsmen in the wake of budget cuts: Sharon Waxman of The Wrap called the position “a luxury” in the modern era, and Pexton noted ombudsmen are paid about as much as senior editors. But The Post’s decision was particularly surprising as the newspaper was thought to have established “the gold standard for this position,” as former Post ombudsman Michael Getler said in an interview with Media Matters.The Post was the second newspaper in the U.S. to hire an ombudsman and the first in the country with a weekly ombudsman column, according to The Observer.

The change surely won’t escape readers’ attention. Responses published after Pexton indicated that he may be The Post’s last ombudsman indicated that many were “horrified” that the newspaper would consider eliminating an “irreplaceable position.”

Counter-arguments chiefly emphasize that fact that readers can comment on articles online and write letters to the editor, suggesting that they no longer need ombudsmen to speak for them. But readers do not have the time or resources to investigate Post matters as previous ombudsmen did. For instance, no casual reader would have looked into The Post’s supposed “interview transcript” with China’s Vice President Xi Jinping that Pexton exposed as a written declaration from the Chinese government, more press release than interview by any means.

The Washington Post set an important precedent, and many argue they’re destroying it when its needed most. NPR cited 2012 statistics from Gallup that show only 40 percent of readers have high trust in media. In the 1970s, that number was above 70 percent. An ombudsman, Schumacher-Matos argues, is critical for readers to establish trust in their news source.

Other countries seem to realize the potential of ombudsmen, with Argentina recently appointing an ombudsman responsible for all radio and TV in the country and Colombia’s number of ombudsmen now totalling 14 for TV alone, according to The Observer.

“The nation needs a reliable, fact-based news media more than ever to combat the misinformation and cynicism,” Schumacher-Matos wrote. “The quality of American journalism is generally high, but ombudsmen help hold their newsrooms’ feet to the fire.”

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