July 01, 2009

NPR's Ombuds Has the Loneliest Job in the Newsroom

As the neutral intermediary between public radio listeners and staffers, NPR’s Alicia Shepard says she has “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” This and other observations will sound familiar to Organizational Ombuds. For example, Shepard says it took the first six months of her two-year contract just to learn how NPR works.
It’s no doubt hard to justify spending money on an ombudsman when the newsroom budget is being slashed. And it’s easy to dismiss an ombudsman’s defense of his value as simply self-interest. But there’s a difference between having citizens point out errors and flaws, and having an independent observer inside a news organization with “a hall pass and a platform,” as New York Times executive editor Bill Keller describes an ombudsman.

Ombudsmen like [the Washington Posts] Alexander and Shepard may never be beloved, but they do play an important role. Their presence is a clear signal that the news organization cares about the public’s concerns and will take steps to respond. And they can also serve as a deterrent. The knowledge that someone is watching, someone with the authority to draw public attention to errors and ethical missteps, may help keep them from happening in the first place.

(Advancing the Story.)

Related posts: More Thoughts on the Decline of News Ombuds; News Ombuds to Meet in Washington; News Ombuds Also Vulnerable to Budget Cuts.

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