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.
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 programme. 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 judgement 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?”
This post was first published by the World Editors Forum on www.editorsweblog.org and is republished here with their kind permission.
This study quoted a South African case.
CASE STUDY: Encouraging self-reflection in South Africa
The Mail & Guardian published an investigative story on 28 March, 2013 revealing
details about an aircraft order that was key to a battle over control of South
African Airways. But the story left many questions unanswered. Both in a column
he wrote and in discussions within the newsroom, ombudsman Franz Krüger
raised awareness of journalistic practices in need of improvement.
NO SMOKING GUN IN SAA STORY
By Franz Krüger
…Conflict over a huge order seemed to provide useful new background
and I read the story with a few fairly simple questions in mind: How did
the deal lead to this spectacular collapse at the airline? What was the
conflict about? And, a little later, what is the status of this procurement
…Of course, in newspaper stories as in life, sometimes there are more
questions than answers. But here the effect is simply vague and tantalising,
leaving this reader, at least, frustrated. It reads a bit like a fishing expedition.
This story is not the only example of a kind of investigative approach,
increasingly common, that presents a series of vague and complex
¬connections that may suggest something improper – or they may not.
The difficulty with this kind of story is that it is too easy for the writer’s
conviction that something is wrong to drive the supposition and inference
in particular directions.
Also, such stories can be very hard to read, with a wealth of complex detail
that is difficult to follow.
…The view behind the SAA story seems to be that there’s no smoke
without fire. I prefer a smoking gun any day.
Full column available here.