Critical Thinking

Would the Return of the Newsroom Ombudsmen Improve Credibility and Trust in Mainstream Media?

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Alison Ward, 20, sophomore, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Wash.   

Ward is the opinions editor for The Western Front and a public relations journalism major and sociology minor. She focuses on providing local news while calling attention to important stories, opinions, and concerns from the community.

The most crucial thing a newsroom can have is transparency, balance, accuracy, and practical steps to respond to public concerns and complaints. Newsroom ombudsmen are the channel newsrooms can have to create credibility and two-way communication between the mainstream media and the public.

During a time of strong skepticism, bias and disagreement in mainstream media, newsrooms need to have an ombudsman to explain to the public how news-gathering works. Once someone understands something, it is easier for one to trust and engage more in that subject. The return of the newsroom ombudsmen can help journalists and the newsroom become more aware of public concerns and opinions regarding a story they wrote or a story they should write.

 A newsroom can have the ombudsman’s duties and contact information listed on their site. Readers can then confidently know that this newsroom has a designated person who monitors published news for accuracy and balance while also answering questions and concerns from the public. Without a designated person for the public to contact, a newsroom may be seen as inaccessible and arrogant to the public’s needs.

Journalists and editors juggle so much that if a complaint or a concern comes their way, it could become lost in their inbox or not answered correctly. A newsroom needs to keep good connections with the community because if a journalist needs to write a story and a critical source will not accept an interview request because they had a bad experience with the newsroom then an essential source and view is lost.

The newsroom must serve the public, but how can the newsroom serve its audience without having an open conversation with them? Ombudsmen can make sure translation is not lost between the reader and the writer and can help pave the way for a respectful discussion. With accessibility and accountability comes credibility.

Jaci Smith, 54, North Iowa editor/Lee Enterprises, Mason City, Iowa

Smith was promoted from editor of the Mason City Globe Gazette to her current position in July  2020. She began her career in 1994 as a copy editor in Racine, Wis. Since then, she has worked as an investigative reporter, coach, digital editor, and executive editor in newsrooms in Minnesota, California, Delaware, and New Jersey.

I think the idea behind the creation of a newspaper ombudsman—holding journalists accountable for their words—is more important now than it was when the position was first created in 1967. But we need to update the concept a bit.

One of the issues with a traditional ombudsman is that their work frequently falls into the “too little, too late” category. Writing a column, as most ombudsmen do, taking a paper to task after the publication of a story or ad may help the public feel more confident that fairness and accuracy are being vigilantly monitored, but it does little to improve the internal operations that produced the faulty piece in the first place. That’s where our focus should be.

Every member of a newsroom needs to own their piece of the credibility pie by engaging more with the public and lifting the veil off their internal work processes. Basic examples include hyperlinks in attribution and methodology boxes with data pieces. More complex ones are regularly surveying sources for accuracy after a story publishes, hosting reader advisory panels and opening news meetings to the public. A simple thing the Globe Gazette has done is include a box thanking the tipster when we report a story based on a tip from the public.

And as part of our instant internet reaction world, we should meet the public where they gather—on social media. We don’t have to entertain the trolls, but we should encourage discourse, be proud of the work we do, and be eager to stand behind it.

The best thing we can do to build trust with our community is to reflect it and become part of it. All of us.

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