The value of an ombudsman

It was reported once more this past weekend that the Washington Post is considering getting rid of its ombudsman position of 43 years. Current ombudsman Patrick Pexson moved the story past the rumor stage with his Sunday column  Pexson said newly installed executive editor Marty Baron believes there are plenty of avenues already in place for addressing criticism of the Post and, with tightening budgets, the salary didn’t make sense.

“There is ample criticism of our performance from outside sources, entirely independent of the newsroom, and we don’t pay their salaries,” Pexson quotes Baron as saying.

Granted, ombudsmen have been dying off at a steady rate since the 1970s, but they’ve always had an important and revered position with the largest of America’s newspapers. The Post’s ombudsman has been a position of great inspiration and purpose for one of America’s greatest media institutions.

Herein lie my concerns: First, allowing those outside the newsroom to be the sole source of criticism for your publication isn’t the same as having internal checks and balances with self-imposed accountability. Second, if Baron and others think that they can manage the task of addressing criticism by using in-position editors they are missing the entire value of having an ombudsman. Allowing subjective editors to replace an independent ethicist becomes nothing more than a whitewashing effort to resolve complaints. By allowing the alleged offenders within the newsroom to help serve, even in a small way, as the judge and jury means you are eroding the very credibility you hope to attain with a separate reader advocate.

I’ve learned a lot from my 20 years on the SPJ Ethics Committee. Something that has always struck me as odd is this ill-conceived notion that people who become editors are suddenly bestowed with indelible, sage moral reasoning. You see in many newsrooms editors deemed the best purveyors of ethics.  But, if that were the case, most ethically suspect material would never make it before the public, assuming review by these moral mastodons. We’d have no case studies to analyze; we’d need no code of ethics. We’d simply leave it to the moral attributes of a few who are in power by virtue of their longevity at the workplace or their abilities to get the most of a reporting staff or polish a rag tag piece of copy into a masterpiece of prose.

In this position as chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee I field numerous ethical complaints from the public. In almost every incident they call SPJ’s Ethics Hotline because they’ve already pleaded their case with the reporter and an editor but were ignored, spurned or told there was no problem. None of these papers have independent ombudsmen, so the verdict lies with the people who are being criticized. These have included cases where the reporter’s wife is campaign manager for a candidate, where an editor has lobbied in the paper to get a coach fired after he cut the editor’s son during tryouts. They’ve involved cases where they’ve refused to run corrections even after documents were provided to show the reporter made a factual mistake.

We then wonder why our moral currency with the public isn’t of much value anymore. And, now we have a great paper wondering why an independent, judicious voice is needed to lend credibility to its work and image.

Last fall, a young reporter called me saying she questioned her editors’ decision to pay for travel, hotel and meal expenses for a couple who were going to see their son in prison. The story focused on the tribulations of having an incarcerated family member. They asked the couple to be a part of the story. The couple wanted paid, and the paper agreed to send them 100 miles away to visit their son. The couple ran up room, meals and bar bills the paper paid. When this young reporter, a year removed from college, questioned the ethics of the editors, she said she was informed “this is way things get done in journalism” and if she didn’t like it, she might want to look elsewhere for a job. And, if she brought it up again, she’d need to. This type of ethical decision making is more common in American newsrooms than we want to admit. And, this is the moral reasoning we are pleased to show the public whose interests we claim to be serving?

In a journalism world where hollowed-out excuses are readily used as foundational support for ethical decision making, why would a newspaper with the reputation of the Washington Post consider removing the very underpinning of integrity and credibility from its news coverage? Granted the Post is assailed every day for its decisions, just like most of America’s media. But, until now, it has never considered allowing those who could be breaking ethical standards to sit in judgment of themselves.


(Smith is chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee. He served as chair from 1994-96 and 2010-present. He is the former president of SPJ (2009-10). He currently teaches journalism ethics at the University of Dayton.

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