New report finds ombudsmen a global growth industry

At a time when the number of news ombudsmen is dropping in some Western countries, their ranks are increasing elsewhere, most notably Latin America. According to a new report “Giving the Public a Say: How news ombudsmen ensure accountability, build trust and add value to media organisations,” this growth reflects a belief in young or fragile democracies that strong media play a critical role in development.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | November 22, 2013

The report quotes Argentine academic Flavia Pauwels as having written that the work of ombudsmen “demands our attention, because they are blazing one of the possible paths, though not the only one, along which the Right to Information can advance.”

The report was written by Karen Rothmyer, a former ombudsman and member of the Canada-based Organisation of News Ombudsmen, who is currently a visiting fellow at Cambridge University. It was published online and in print by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s media program. While the report (soon also available in French) puts a special emphasis on Africa, the case studies it presents are drawn from around the world.

In Africa, the report notes, ombudsmen play an important role in warding off government interference. It describes a case in which Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Information, publicly denounced the Star newspaper and brought a complaint to the country’s Media Council after the Star published a hoax front-page photo. The photo, which supposedly showed a helicopter trailing smoke just before it crashed in 2012 killing a presidential candidate, had in fact been downloaded from a stock photo website and been sent in by someone who claimed to have shot the scene himself.

Recalling, some months later, the media crackdowns that were once the norm, Ndemo commented, “In the ‘80s the paper would have been shut down and someone would have been in jail.”

However, after the Star ombudsman investigated the incident and wrote a column concluding that poor judgment on the part of several editors, rather than any deliberate attempt to mislead the public, had led the photo’s publication, Ndemo dropped his complaint and even wrote a letter to the paper congratulating it “for showing exemplary leadership.”

The most timely case study in the report involves New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who, since her appointment in 2012, has repeatedly criticised the paper’s timid handling of national security issues.

The report quotes Sullivan as saying of the tart tone that characterises many of her pieces, including the one on drones that the report discusses, “I don’t see it as angry. But I like to be clear. I don’t want to be wishy-washy.”

Sullivan’s impact is magnified by her extensive use of Twitter, which she describes as “nimble, and so interesting and interactive.” And, she says, “It does lend some weight to what I might say that there’s an army of people who follow it.”

Sullivan’s fans include Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke Edward Snowden’s revelations about government spying. He is quoted as having told a reporter who wrote a profile of Sullivan early this year that Sullivan focuses on the questions an ombudsman should pursue. These, he said, include “How does a newspaper fulfil the prime function of acting as an adversarial check on those in power, and how does it go about informing its readings of facts without concern for who is offended?”

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