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How We Work: A Week In The Ombudsman's Office

Editor's Note: Elizabeth is out of the office this week. In the interim, we thought it was a good time to answer readers who have been asking about our process. Here's a look at how we operate in the Ombudsman's office.

First, a note from Elizabeth: The Ombudsman's office serves primarily as a liaison between the newsroom and listeners, to make the newsroom leaders aware of how listeners feel and help listeners understand why the newsroom makes the decisions it does. I investigate listener concerns and issues of journalism ethics and occasionally suggest changes. I have no management authority, however; the newsroom can take my suggestions (or not). I don't speak for the newsroom or for NPR—just for myself—and I don't have the power to print a correction or set policy.

When I write about topics I sometimes add my own opinion. Some listeners and NPR.org readers have expressed concern that when I disagree with them they are not being represented. But reasonable people will not always agree on everything, and listeners and readers themselves frequently see issues from conflicting perspectives. For issues that I choose to write about, I try to give a public airing to a wide range of listeners' opinions. When I weigh in myself it is to add one more perspective or suggest corrections. But I make note of all the perspectives I receive and pass them along internally.

While NPR has traditionally used the title Ombudsman, I tweeted recently that I actually prefer the title The New York Times uses for the role, that of "public editor," mostly because it makes clear that my role is primarily focused on the newsroom, and not NPR as a whole. Readers often write with questions about specific NPR underwriting, or management issues, but those areas are outside my purview.

Now turning it over to Annie, the office's editorial researcher, who will explain what a typical week looks like. – Elizabeth Jensen

  • We read through all the letters and emails to the Ombudsman and answer as many as we can, unless they are outside our purview. We get about 200 emails per week. About half of those are questions we can answer easily. Others we investigate and respond to individually. Some we collect into a file that provides the basis for a long column by the Ombudsman; others are marked as possible candidates for shorter pieces. The rest are made note of or forwarded to the appropriate person in the organization. Spam is deleted accordingly.
  • We have access to the emails sent to the individual NPR-produced shows and browse them for recurring themes. We read over 100 of these emails per day during a slow week. These are typically comments on individual stories, but occasionally listeners raise ethical issues and question NPR's adherence to its journalistic standards.
  • We field any snail mail or phone calls that might come in. (While the postcards are endearing, we much prefer you direct your comments to us via email. Because of the volume of listener questions, we cannot return all phone calls.)
  • We read the user comments on our posts for interesting takes and respond when we can answer quick questions.
  • We also keep up with other media reporters and industry news. Sometimes, if another media organization is struggling with an ethical issue, we may encounter it as well.
  • We check in on social media throughout the day. You can comment on our pieces and interact with other listeners on Facebook and reach out to Elizabeth on Twitter.
  • We, of course, listen to and read as much NPR content as possible. Elizabeth listens to Morning Edition and All Things Considered every day, among other programs. I tune in via NPR One and listen to the NPR-produced podcasts. We both monitor NPR.org content throughout the day.
  • How do we decide which issues are worthy of a column? In general, we look for topics that will be of interest to a large number of listeners and readers, or issues that we feel need to be addressed on a timely basis. We rely heavily on NPR's in-house ethics guidelines, and also consider general journalistic principles, such as those laid out in the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics. Readers sometimes ask how many emails we need to get to raise an issue. The short answer is: there is no answer. Sometimes a single, thoughtfully-written email will spark a conversation as big as does a 500-plus email campaign generated by a special interest group.
  • I do a little research on the topic before Elizabeth and I discuss the issue at hand. If she wants to weigh in or write about it, we reach out to the appropriate reporter/editor/host/producer and their supervisors to understand the reporting process and editorial decisions. We also work closely with Mark Memmott, NPR's Standards and Practices editor, who often issues guidance to the newsroom on style and ethics. If you think a correction is warranted on a story, start by sending him an email via the Contact Us form. If the results are not satisfactory and you feel a follow-up is later needed, reach out to our office.
  • When Elizabeth writes about an issue sometimes she offers an opinion and sometimes she just opens it up for discussion. Oftentimes, we examine several issues in a mailbag column. Ombudsman posts can have an influence (like in this case) but the Ombudsman does not have any direct power to reshape policy.
  • The blog posts are circulated internally as well as on social media and often show up on the NPR.org homepage and Facebook page. We're happy to interact on social media and via email if you have questions, comments and other feedback on our posts.
  • Every six months, NPR's chief executive Jarl Mohn gets a report summarizing the office's interactions with listeners and readers, excerpts of which are also distributed to top newsroom executives.
  • FAQs and Useful Links:

  • A lot of people get NPR confused with PBS. Although we love their work, we are separate organizations. If you have questions or comments about PBS programming, please contact the PBS Ombudsman.
  • For content that is produced by a member station—for example, local newscasts or programs aired exclusively by your local station—contact that member station directly. If you still need help on an issue involving a member station, sometimes the CPB Ombudsman can intervene.
  • Was your comment on a post deleted? Having trouble with Disqus? Here is the comment moderation explainer that we will send you, which includes instructions on how to contact Audience Services. It's Audience Services that can help resolve your issue. We regret that we cannot help you with questions about deleted comments or other commenting issues.
  • Ever wonder why NPR calls the president Obama and not Mr. President? A former ombudsman wrote a column about the policy change that decided the president would no longer receive the honorific "Mr." on second references.
  • Have a question or complaint about NPR's funding and corporate underwriting? That topic is outside of the Ombudsman's purview but here are two columns on underwriting guidelines, part one and part two.
  • Other common topics that fall outside our reach: listener thoughts about NPR's on-air personalities, audio quality, and technical issues on the website. We cannot accept press releases or story ideas, which should be directed to the individual programs found on NPR.org.
  • Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Anne Johnson
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