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Survival Tips for Ombudsmen

Once a year, there is a gathering of news ombudsmen. We meet to encourage each other, share notes and compare scars.

This week we are meeting at the Poynter Institute, a journalistic think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. Our group is formally known as the Organization of News Ombudsmen and our acronym -- "ONO!" -- seems to be apt for this line of work.

ONO is an international organization with more than 40 members in 15 countries. The majority comes from American media, with all but two of us being from print.

Accountability and Transparency

Whether in radio, television or print, the job is the same -- to bring the concerns of the readers, listeners and viewers to the editorial and managerial attention of our news organizations, to create and foster journalistic accountability and transparency on behalf of the public inside our news organizations.

Ombudsman is a Swedish word that dates back to the 19th century. It means someone who acts as an agent of the public. Originally, this meant intervening on behalf of the citizens with the Swedish government.

The title may differ from one organization to another but the job is the same. A news ombudsman is also called a reader representative, reader advocate, reader editor or public editor. But ombudsman seems to be the universal generic. News ombudsmanship is not a new idea. The first ombudsman was appointed in Japan in 1922 by the Tokyo daily, Yomiuri Shimbun. Today, that newspaper has an impressive array of ombudsmen assigned to every editorial aspect at the paper -- a total of 22 ombudsmen at one paper (be still my heart...)!

In 1967, two Kentucky dailies, the Louisville Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, were the first American newspapers to appoint ombudsmen. Now about 40 U.S. newspapers -- plus NPR and a local television station -- have this position.

For this year's gathering, more than 55 ombudsmen from 12 countries will descend on South Florida. It will be the largest meeting ever in the history of ONO since our group was founded in 1980. And ONO keeps growing steadily, receiving another application from a new member every three to six weeks.

Many of our newer members are often surprised at the range and intensity of listener/viewer/reader opinions. Others encounter considerable initial resistance from inside their news organizations as well.

As a result, burnout can be a risk after a few years on the front lines.

One of our most experienced colleagues is Mike Clark. He is the reader advocate at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He has come up with an FAQ sheet for new ombudsmen.

How To Survive as Ombudsman

While some of Clark's suggestions apply mostly to the needs of a local newspaper, this is still good advice for ombudsmen everywhere:

Angry Callers?

Q. How do you deal with angry callers?

A. Let them vent for a reasonable amount of time, then let them know you have listened, you understand the complaint, you will share it with the staff and indicate what action might be taken. Try to avoid getting into a rapid-fire exchange. When the heat starts rising, hold the phone away from your ear, lean back and let the caller have the floor. You may have to politely, but firmly, end the call. You will have to judge whether you want to get into a disagreement with a caller; it may not be worth the time. If the caller is profane or racist, warn that you will not put up with that language or you will hang up. Callers typically make broad statements. Ask for specifics that you can deal with. Or invite the reader to call back the next time an example is found.

Remember that a kind voice turns away wrath. Don't respond in kind to a sarcastic or angry reader, even if you are tempted to. First, you don't want to give the reader ammunition against you. And you will often find that the reader's tone changes if you maintain a polite, professional disposition. When responding to an e-mail, remember that an e-mail can be forwarded anywhere, so be careful. Ignore the anger and the sarcasm and deal with the facts.

Stress

Q. How do you deal with stress?

A. It helps to have a support system. You will be isolated from the newsroom. You need to find healthy outlets, whether exercise, meditation or volunteer activities. Be sure to take some days off, especially after a trying period of complaints. Find some time to laugh. Our family tapes comedy shows and watches them together.

Other Duties As Assigned

Q. I have a complaint that seems to fall outside the usual job description. How do I handle it?

A. You can handle it quietly, internally. Don't worry about doing everything at once. If it's symptomatic, you will hear about it again. Let's say there are complaints about the editorial page, which is not normally in your jurisdiction. Then refer the reader to the editorial page editor. If the editor is non-responsive, direct the reader to write a letter to the publisher. You also will hear of advertising and circulation concerns. Generally, you can simply direct the reader to the most responsive staff member in those departments. If there is a serious complaint, such as an ad from a scam artist, you can make sure that an advertising department executive hears about it.

An Answer for Everyone?

Q. Do you answer everything?

A. Ideally, you would try to acknowledge every communication promptly. Some readers don't appear to want an answer and just want to vent.

Handling Complaints

Q. What are some of the options to offer readers when faced with a complaint?

1. Letter to the editor. (The letter writer can put comments in his own words without a rebuttal)

2. Inclusion of the complaint in an internal report to the staff. (For the writer who doesn't want to go public, but wants management to be aware of the complaint)

3. Mention of the complaint in your column. (That means the staffer will be offered a chance to respond, but offers the possibility that you will support the complaint).

4. Speak privately to the staffer.

Finding Information

Q. What if the reader wants information from you?

A. If a request is newspaper-related and you can reasonably expect other calls, then a search is worth your time. Or tell readers how to find information themselves at the library or on the newspaper's Web site. There is only so much a one-person department can do. You can't be the library. For regular questions, keep standard answers in a computer file that you can cut and paste.

'Management Lackey?'

Q. How do you avoid the impression that you are a lackey of the newspaper?

A. You can't force it. Over time, you will build a reputation. Presumably, there will be complaints made against the paper that deserve public response. The typical format for a column is to present a complaint by a reader, offer a response by the staff and conclude with your comments, providing context and background. Some would like you to be a "critic," but intellectual honesty requires you to call 'em like you see 'em.

'Newspaper Scold?'

Q. How do you avoid the impression that you are a scold of the newspaper?

A. Even if you support the paper, it may be seen as airing dirty laundry by some in the newsroom. In my weekly internal report, I have a separate category for compliments. On occasion, you should recognize extraordinary work by the staff, especially when it draws comments from the readers. When the staff makes changes suggested by readers or with the readers in mind, you should applaud them. Let the staff know that you can be an effective advocate for dispelling myths and misinformation about the paper. Your independence carries weight.

Getting the Message Out

Q. How do you communicate?

1.You may write a daily note or a weekly report, shared on the staff's computer message board or distributed in print to other newspaper management.

2. You may attend news meetings and report reader reaction.

3. A weekly column

Thank you, Mike. Those are helpful thoughts for new and not-so-new ombudsmen.

Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

NPR Ombudsman

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
As Ombudsman, Dvorkin's duties include receiving, investigating, and responding to queries from the public regarding editorial standards in programming. He also writes an Internet column www.npr.org, and presents his views on journalistic issues on-air on NPR programs. While some newspapers in the U.S. have had Ombudsmen since the 1960s, it is rare for U.S. broadcast media to appoint an Ombudsman.
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