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Ombudsmen Discuss Good, Bad and Annoying of the Internet

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Public editors are in the crossfire between angry readers
-- who feel the media isn't in touch with them -- and media management. Weblogs and e-mail have made the job harder, bringing in more feedback than ever before. We talk to several ombudsmen to find the Net effect.

There was a time when the newspaper's ombudsman was a shadowy figure, hovering somewhere in the background, called upon by readers on the occasion where something was going ethically wrong. But with the advent of e-mail communication and online distribution for their columns, the public editors (also sometimes known as reader representatives) have come out into the open, for good or bad.

A job that used to afford time for careful rumination of the issues now involves a cavalcade of attack e-mails aimed at the newspaper's real or imagined political point of view. The ideal of responding to each reader's complaint with a detailed reply has become impossible at top newspapers such as The Washington Post, where ombudsman Michael Getler sometimes gets 1,000-plus e-mails on a hot topic -- often from special interest groups that publicize an issue and advocate a canned e-mail response.

"Many of the e-mails are not really relevant to anything you're doing," Getler said. "It takes a lot of time just to kill stuff that's not remotely relevant to our job. So [e-mail is] a negative in that sense, unless you have a staff that can go through these things and weed them out. But if you're by yourself, it's a huge additional demand on your time just to sort things out."

That sentiment certainly resonates with Daniel Okrent, The New York Times' first public editor, hired in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. Okrent has an assistant, Arthur Bovino, to help manage the heavy load of correspondence. Each e-mail message a reader sends to Okrent at [email protected] gets an auto-reply assuring the sender that their message will be read -- though they won't necessarily get a personal reply.

Okrent not only writes a regular column that runs in the Times' Week in Review in print, he also has a blog-like Web journal that runs in NYTimes.com's Forums section.

In theory, most public editors like the idea of e-mail and the Web improving interactions between readers and the media outlet. But in practice, the Web gives ombudsmen -- and one prominent ombudswoman in San Diego -- a much bigger global audience that can poke and prod them to no end. Add in special interest groups and bloggers running coordinated strikes at media outlets, and you can see why public editors might feel like they're on the front line of ideological warfare.

As with past virtual roundtables, I e-mailed and talked by phone to various public editors to get their responses to the same set of questions. The following is an edited transcript of their responses.

Jeffrey Dvorkin has been ombudsman for National Public Radio since February 2000, after serving as NPR's vice president for news and information from 1997 to 2000. Before working at NPR, Dvorkin was chief journalist and managing editor for CBC Radio in Canada, and he has done consulting work with journalism groups in Slovenia, Hungary and Poland.

Michael Getler has been the ombudsman for The Washington Post since November 2000. Earlier, he was executive editor of the International Herald Tribune from 1996 until 2000. Before working for the Tribune, Getler worked for The Washington Post for 26 years, winning the Post's Eugene Meyer Award in 1992 for distinguished career service.

Tony Marcano has been the ombudsman at the Sacramento Bee since June 2003, after serving as staff editor and assistant metro editor at The New York Times from 1995 to 2003. He previously worked in various staff positions for the Los Angeles Times and Daily News in New York, and he is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Mike Needs is both public editor for the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, and director of Beacon Journal Interactive. From 1997 to 2001, he was the director of Ohio.com, a Web site affiliated with the paper. From 1981 to 1997, he held various Beacon Journal management positions.

Daniel Okrent became The New York Times' first public editor in October 2003 after spending 25 years in magazine and book publishing, working as Time Inc.'s editor of new media and managing editor at Life. He was the Hearst Foundation Visiting Fellow in New Media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1999. Okrent is also known as the Beloved Founder of rotisserie baseball.

Don Sellar has been ombudsman since 1992 at the Toronto Star, where he was formerly an editorial writer and editorial page editor. He began his journalism career as a reporter at the Calgary Herald and later worked for Southam News Services as a political correspondent in Ottawa and Washington. The Star -- Canada's biggest daily -- is the country's only newspaper with an ombud.

OJR: How has the advent of e-mail communication changed the work that you do as a public editor? Positives and negatives?

Jeffrey Dvorkin: Communication with the ombudsman has become essentially an e-mail phenomenon. In some ways, the flow of e-mail is now so intense that it limits the ability to respond in a thoughtful way to every e-mail. Instead, it is necessary to do some triage. All get read and all get an auto-reply. In 2003, I dealt with just under 50,000 e-mails. This excludes the usual spam, porn, Viagra and requests to send money to deposed African dictators.

The advantage to e-mail is that the ombudsman has, in my opinion, become a real agent of the listeners. People want to get inside the workings of a news organization that has, in the past, been quite impenetrable and resistant to outside pressures. The disadvantage is that e-mail has become a way of pressuring the media, and not always successfully. When political or cultural blogs tell their adherents to e-mail the ombudsman, the first 50 or 60 e-mails are impressive. The repetitious nature of the e-mails tends to be counterproductive after a while.

The Web and e-mail have changed the nature of political discourse in America mostly for better, but in certain cases for worse. ... The credibility of the complaint is inversely proportional to the volume of e-mail that is generated on that subject. (We can call this Dvorkin's Axiom.)

Michael Getler: It's clearly changed my work enormously because the volume of correspondence that one gets via e-mail is just awesome. It's a huge amount of e-mail, hundreds every day. If there's a write-in campaign, which are very easy to do by e-mail now, it can run to a thousand. Fortunately, that's not very frequent.

The plus side, of course, is it allows a lot of people to express their views. In many cases, they make important points and observations that perhaps you wouldn't have heard before or you wouldn't have had them in time. So it's obviously a very major evolution in how we communicate, [and it] has its pluses and minuses. It's led to some techniques that I personally find questionable in terms of generating e-mail campaigns.

Mike Needs: The advent and growth in e-mail communication has increased communication with readers exponentially -- and that's a wonderful thing. Were it not for e-mail, I could not have launched the Virtual Readers Network more than two years ago. That's my feedback network of 200 readers who offer me weekly comments on newsroom ethics and practices. I absolutely could not do that before e-mail. Technology is our friend.

Daniel Okrent: I only started in the job for the Times on December 1, so I don't know what it was like [before], I can only surmise. In an e-mail world, it makes it a lot easier for people to let their views be known. It multiplies the volume beyond anyone's possible comprehension. And there's one negative side, which is you don't have to think to send an e-mail. You can just type out 12 words and then hit "send," whereas if you want to send a letter you have to get a piece of paper and a stamp and a pen, and fold it up. It takes thought and care. A portion of the e-mail that one gets has not been thought through, is not considered, I would say.

Don Sellar: E-mail has made it much easier to contact reporters and editors, and get information from them. The fact that my e-mail address is on the bottom of every column makes the ombud's office more accessible. An e-mailed complaint about a story from a reader in Afghanistan last week led to an investigation, much exchanging of information, and a column, all in the space of less than a week.

In pre-electronic times, it's unlikely the complainant would have seen the story for days or weeks. The story would have lost all resonance with readers, and quite possibly, the irate reader wouldn't have bothered to write. In the end, I disagreed with the complainant, but her viewpoint was taken seriously, aired and discussed publicly. The downside with e-mail, of course, is the volume of work it generates, especially when e-mailers have nothing better to do than snipe and pick away at my pathetic responses.

OJR: Have ombud columns posted on the Web given them more visibility in the community and outside the community? Does it change the focus of your work?

Getler: Absolutely. I get a good chunk of my mail every day from people who clearly have not seen the printed paper but have seen it online. That's good. It gets a lot of diverse reaction and it generally is a good thing.

But again, the e-mail campaign is an important factor, because there are a lot of special interest groups who have media watch groups, paid people who will read and look for things in newspapers, and then send out advisories to all their members saying, "Such and such a paper has said this in this fashion and you should write to the editor or ombudsman." It doesn't mean that the points aren't valid. It just means it's enormously expanded the amount of mail you get. I think it has less impact than people who write as individuals, and who come to these observations and complaints on their own.

Tony Marcano: Yes, my column's posting on www.sacbee.com (and the occasional link from it on Romenesko) has expanded the audience outside of the community. It hasn't changed the focus of my work, which is to serve readers in the Bee's primary circulation area.

Needs: Last week, I wrote about the local furor over the Beacon Journal's handling of the gay-marriage issue. The online column generated a huge response from around the country. Having it posted on Poynter's Web site certainly helped. A recent column about reporting on the conditions at the local animal shelter produced nearly 500 e-mails from animal rights activists around the world. That's great. Getting that national perspective often is instructive in trying to gauge the purely local viewpoint.

Okrent: Before I started the Web Journal, I was getting e-mails and calls all over the world already. You know, the Times has a national and international readership partly because of the Web. Adding my Web Journal to that I don't think particularly broadens the audience. It just creates another avenue of communication with them.

Sellar: I enjoy the added reach of the online column. It draws e-mail and comments from across Canada, the U.S. and Asia -- places where the print edition of the Star is rarely, if ever, seen. It's fun when a blogger or a respectable journalism Web site, such as Poynter (Jim Romenesko) determines there's something of merit (or demerit) in the column.

The extra exposure, of course, carries with it a feeling that more people are looking over my shoulder, and second-guessing my case decisions. With a broader audience, I try to write the column in ways that will still have resonance with people who don't happen to live in greater Toronto, or even in Canada. It's a brake against Toronto-jargon. But it's important not to write over the heads of the local audience, in some vainglorious bid for global attention.

OJR: Do you think journalists have become lazy because of tools like Web searches and e-mail? Has that led to more problems with stories?

Dvorkin: At NPR, our new ethics guide insists that the Web and e-mail are just new tools with which we can work. But the issue of credibility of sources is the same. We should no more go with a source that is Web-generated unless we can find a reliable second source to confirm it. That's why we didn't run any stories on the alleged Kerry affair. It came from Matt Drudge, but it had no veracity. Other media began reporting the rumors on the Net, but I think that is a lazy way of getting into the story. It's also unethical.

Getler: I think it's hard to know whether they've become lazy or not. Anecdotally, you could probably make the case that reporters get out of the office less often than they used to before the Web was available. I think far fewer reporters go to briefings now because they know that 10 minutes later it will be electronically on the Web. So you don't have to go up to Capitol Hill or the Pentagon or whatever the venue is.

As a reporter, I always found there were serendipitous occasions where you bump into somebody or see a colleague -- something would happen while you were out of the office that would be useful. I presume that that happens less now. I don't know that it has an effect on accuracy. In fact accuracy may well have been improved by the extraordinary research capabilities that the Web affords. I don't think it's resulted in a diminution of accuracy, but I think it does lead to reporters spending less time on the streets, so to speak. I think that's a negative.

Marcano: Some have become lazy, but the Web has also made some journalists more efficient. For example, basic biographical information about corporate officers, government officials and other public figures are now widely available on the Web. Time spent trying to get that information from public relations people or other spokespersons can now be devoted to deeper reporting. Reporters still need to check that any information on the Web is current and accurate, but having any kind of information at your fingertips is a nice head start.

Okrent: No, I would say the opposite. I would say Web searches enable you to chase down things that you might not have taken the trouble to chase down before. I think that, if properly used, it enhances accuracy and completeness. [There have been problems] in a couple cases, but not enough for me to say this is a bad thing for journalism. I think on balance it's a good thing for journalism.

Sellar: Web searches and e-mail interviews can be good reporting tools. But good reporters have to be careful not to rely on them too much. On the one hand, they turn up a lot of useful information and can add heft to a story. But they also contribute to inaccuracy problems and, in some circumstances, can squeeze the life out of a story by adding scads of overly long quotes and unnecessary detail. In working on a column, I like to use e-mail as a way of coaxing someone on to the phone to elaborate on our exchange of information.

OJR: What's your take on the blogging phenomenon, and do you believe the blog format might work instead of -- or in addition to -- the public editor's column?

Dvorkin: Blogs are here to stay. They are a new and somewhat untested form of journalism. They are also a positive expression of the rambunctiousness of American culture and democracy...a bit unwieldy...hard to contain...often an utterly genuine expression of political and cultural vigor and excitement. Old-line media need to figure out a way to report on them as often as they report on us.

Marcano: Blogs are like television news -- they're great for immediacy, and they may encourage some people to turn to other media for more in-depth information or different points of view. I think the reputation of blogs overall is hurt by the overabundance of self-referential, narcissistic sites that exist for little reason other than to draw attention to the blogger. Eventually, the free market will wean out most of those sites, but for now, many blogs still come off as an egocentric exercise.

I don't believe that the blog format works any better than a column for a public editor. If a public editor doesn't have a regularly published column, then a blog would be useful.

Needs: I have tried blogging and enjoyed the opportunity to lower the threshold for distribution of information about the media process. However, it really is a commitment of time -- more so than I expected. Why? Because it constitutes publication and requires the same degree of accuracy and polish that we would give to regular print or online material. I loved the freedom to share my personal reactions to a multitude of topics. I hated being taken to task for posting something that was not completely developed.

Okrent: I'm not blogging, I'm doing something that's kind of a crypto-blog. In the world of opinion, blogs are very effective and powerful. But so many of the things that I have to deal with (and I presume other people in similar positions at other papers have to deal with) require reporting, not just an opinion or a thought. If someone raises something on a blog, it might take me a week to respond to it, because of the reporting that has to be done. That kind of defeats the purpose of a blog, of the rapid conversation that comprises so much blogging.

Sellar: I don't take bloggers very seriously. Their tradecraft is sometimes weak, or lacking. But they're part of the landscape, just as pamphleteers were in days of yore. I chuckle at the inchoate rage of The OmbudsGod at all things liberal, even when he takes a whack at something I wrote.

OJR: How has technology helped to open up the back-room processes of newsgathering -- editorial boards, corrections, etc.?

Dvorkin: I'm not sure it has opened it up as much as it will in the future. Radio technology, for example, has become simpler over the years as a result of digital technology. It is possible to report, edit and broadcast on a number of new platforms -- more cheaply and more efficiently. At the same time, the push for more accountability in journalism is demanding that new voices and new ideas be part of mainline journalism. Two things need to happen at the same time: more accountability inside the news organization and a higher level of media literacy among the general public. These are symbiotic elements that can only exist alongside the other.

Getler: I think the corrections process is still not as open as it should be, and not as thorough as it should be. People are working toward making it better, but I think there's still a ways to go.

Sellar: Some time back, the publisher told me my ombudship extends to the online Star. The assignment has added a new and entirely enjoyable dimension to my job. During the day, I fire in a number of running corrections. Also, for several months, we've been publishing "tomorrow's" print corrections online "today." Online fixes and immediate posting of corrections provide a measure of instant relief for aggrieved victims of newspaper blunders and pratfalls.

It's a work in progress, however. I'm hoping the computer wizards soon will be able to link online corrections to the online stories, and also flag stories so that readers will know they've been updated or corrected.

OJR: What's the most satisfying thing you've done in your job? The most annoying thing?

Dvorkin: Most satisfying: helping listeners and NPR journalists understand each other. That means getting listeners to admit that they actually didn't hear what they thought they heard and getting NPR journalists to understand how to serve the listeners better with less arrogance. Most annoying: people who e-mail me and hit the "send" button 25 or 30 times.

Getler: The most satisfying thing is the sense that you're doing some good by challenging the newspaper through readers' and sometimes through your own observations, challenging them to be as good as they can, and keep up their standards. My belief is that newspapers in particular are extremely important to our society and to our democracy, especially big ones that have a large readership and have a large impact. They must not slip. They need to be absolutely as solid and as aggressive and as factual as possible.

The most annoying thing probably relates to the e-mail aspect of it, because you get a lot of garbage and crude stuff, almost sad, people sitting there getting their frustrations out by saying really crude and nasty things. Sometimes anonymous or even when they're signed, you try to respond and it bounces back because it's kind of a phony address. There's a ton of it. Not that it's a huge problem, but it's kind of depressing actually that there's so much of it out there.

Needs: As public editor, I took 20 days last year to ride my bicycle around Ohio, talking to people about why they live there and what they expect from the media. I can think of no better way for a public editor to get close to the people. The response was fantastic. I wrote a daily print column, a much longer daily online column, and I wrote a daily blog. In the final analysis, the blog generated the most reader appreciation and the most personal gratification.

The most annoying part of my job is a small thing. I find it very frustrating when people leave messages on my phone, but don't leave a name or number, thereby eliminating my ability to respond. Fortunately, that's not a problem with e-mail. Even when people do not sign their e-mails, I'm still able to reply.

Okrent: The most satisfying thing is when a reader comes to me with an objection to something that's appeared in the paper, and I do the necessary reporting on it, and I get back to the reader to say either you're right or you're wrong, I disagree with you. And the reader responds: "Thank you for taking me seriously." And that's as likely to happen when I don't find with the reader as it is when I do.

[The most annoying thing is] personal attacks, either in the e-mail or on blogs. Annoying not because my skin is thin, but annoying because they're such a discouraging development for the American political dialogue, that it degenerates to personal attacks. The degrading of the national dialogue about politics. It's degrading [with] the ubiquity of personal attack, the changing of language from stability to rage and vituperation.

Sellar: The best part of this job is being able to give voice to some little guy who's been unfairly trampled by a big newspaper. Also, to watch young reporters learn from their mistakes and begin to spread their wings as journalists. However, the announced removal of my boss and patron, publisher John Honderich, after nearly 10 years as publisher, has saddened and distressed me. Not once did he kill an ombud's column he disagreed with.

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Related Links
Akron Beacon Journal: Front page sparks outcry
Akron Beacon Journal: Mike Needs' columns
Akron Beacon Journal: Ohio Odyssey 2003
Daniel Okrent's Web Journal
NPR: Jeffrey Dvorkin's columns
NYTimes.com: The Public Editor column
Poynter's Jim Romenesko
SacBee.com: Tony Marcano's columns
SignOnSanDiego: Gina Lubrano's columns
The OmbudsGod Weblog
Toronto Star: Don Sellar's columns
Washingtonpost.com: Michael Getler's columns
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Jeffrey Dvorkin: "Blogs are here to stay."

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Michael Getler: "I get a good chunk of my mail every day from people who clearly have not seen the printed paper but have seen it online. That's good."

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Tony Marcano: "I think the reputation of blogs overall is hurt by the overabundance of self-referential, narcissistic sites that exist for little reason other than to draw attention to the blogger."

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Mike Needs: "The advent and growth in e-mail communication has increased communication with readers exponentially -- and that's a wonderful thing."

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Daniel Okrent: "I would say Web searches enable you to chase down things that you might have not taken the trouble to chase down before."

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Don Sellar: "The best part of this job is being able to give voice to some little guy who's been unfairly trampled by a big newspaper."

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