Media Ombudsmen: Defenders of Truth and Confessors of Sins

If you really want to drive people nuts all a newspaper has to do is make an error in an obituary or a recipe, warned Timothy McNulty. The public editor of the Chicago Tribune, shared his experiences serving as both the newsroom’s moral conscience and correction maven at the Society for Professional Journalists/Colorado Pro Chapter (SPJ) discussion on Saturday in honor of journalism ethics week at the Denver Press Club.

In the midst of never-ending torrents of frustrated readers, defensive reporters, and angry cooks, the public editor – more commonly known as an ombudsman – must balance the need to promote transparency in the inner workings of a news organization with the responsibilities to criticize reporters who make errors and help them learn from their mistakes. While some media critics and bloggers would seem to prefer public floggings for fact check-depleted journalists and story-neutering editors, McNulty believes that a stern but quiet hand behind the scenes is more effective in addressing complaints, avoiding conflicts of interest, and resolving unintentional reporting biases. At the Tribune, editors and reporters are required to respond to his requests for correction.

“Confession is a good thing,” said McNulty. “The faster we correct mistakes, the more credibility we have with our readers and sources.”

Unflappable would be an apt description of McNulty, a veteran journalist, who was appointed public editor at the Tribune early last year, after decades of covering the White House, foreign and national affairs, and holding editorial posts at the paper. McNulty still maintains an editorial role by helping decide Page One story placements and serves in an ex-officio capacity on the editorial board. As a result, he is one of the highest profile news ombudsmen in the nation.

Alternatively, most of the mere 32 bylined ombudsmen with print columns or aired segments among the thousands of U.S. media outlets perform their roles with little fanfare outside of their circulation or broadcast range. Andy Stone of the Colorado Mountain News Media is our state’s sole formally recognized newspaper ombudsman.

One, however, attracted a level of vitriol better known in shock jock talk radio circles.

Deborah Howell, the ombudsman for The Washington Post, violated the first commandment of journalism – don’t become the story.

In January 2006, Howell came under fire over a series of missteps in her own column that lacked the serious fact-checking and precise, even-tempered language ombudsmen demand of their own journalistic charges.

Howell’s thin-skin defeated her purpose when she was reported to have told Post insiders that she would no longer respond publicly to critics after she was excoriated by readers. The controversy erupted further when Executive Editor Jim Brady temporarily shut down an online reader comment section that viciously attacked Howell’s performance.

Following McNulty’s remarks, Colorado SPJ chair John Ensslin of the Rocky Mountain News led a panel discussion of editors – Randy Bangert, Greeley Tribune; Doug Bell, Evergreen Newspapers; Bob Moore, The Coloadoan; Andy Stone, Colorado Mountain News Media; National SPJ President Christine Tatum, The Denver Post, and media critics – Michael Roberts, Westword and Jason Salzman, Rocky Mountain News.

The group discussed wide-ranging views on the delicate roles of ombudsmen, citizen journalism and the new push for community involvement in newsgathering, and criticism of perceived ideological bias in news stories as a reflection of the readers’ own biases.

The most animated exchanges occurred over the affect of blogging by and about newspapers revealing a mixture of editorial fear, time constraints, a lack of newsroom resources, and a sense of resignation that readers expect interactivity served up with community news, sports and weather.

To raucous laughter and groans of acknowledgement, The Coloradoan’s Moore summed it up best about his hesitation to blog about the internal workings of the newsroom with “I know me. I am an Alec Baldwin moment away half the time.”