Above the Trees
Managers at National Public Radio unwittingly thrust themselves into the spotlight this spring when they removed beloved anchor Bob Edwards from the morning slot he’s occupied for nearly 25 years and “re-assigned” him to a senior reporting position.
It’s hard to say whether management anticipated the level of outcry. Newspapers published front-page stories on the decision, and listeners, well, they responded with one anguished, outraged e-mail after another.
By April 12, NPR had received more than 35,000 e-mails, most of them protesting Edwards’ ouster. More than 10,000 of those e-mails landed in the in-box of Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former news manager at NPR who four years ago agreed to become the network’s first ombudsman and the only broadcast ombudsman in the country.
The position puts Dvorkin in the unique role of in-house critic and liaison to the public. Through his weekly online column and the quarterly reports he produces for NPR’s board, which include listener concerns, he says he’s created “a place where people can participate in the act of civic journalism.”
His mission is both to be critical of the moves that affect NPR programming and to give listeners a voice with station management, a dual role that he says keeps NPR on its toes.
There are about 85 news ombudsmen worldwide by Dvorkin’s count. But the concept isn’t a media creation. According to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, Sweden appointed the world’s first ombudsman in 1809 to handle citizen complaints about government. Other entities, including hospitals and universities, use ombudsmen to process complaints and help find solutions.
To be effective, Dvorkin says, ombudsmen need to be truly independent. He says he has to prove to the staff that he isn’t a “stalking horse for management” and, at the same time, prove to listeners that he is willing to “kick the shins of management.”
Don Wycliff, the Chicago Tribune’s ombudsman since 2000, says his job is to represent the newspaper to the public and make sure the voices of readers are heard at the newspaper.
The Tribune created the position in 1991 and called it “public editor.” Wycliff says the title was chosen to express that the person in that seat isn’t “some detached personality issuing judgments from on high.”
Ombudsmen also need to show they can be influential. NPR didn’t have an ethics policy before Dvorkin took the critic’s job. And when listeners complained that NPR was taking funding from a Middle Eastern government, Dvorkin wrote a column and NPR dropped the support.
OWNING UP TO ERRORS
Wycliff and his predecessors have had a similar impact. He notes that like many newspapers, the Tribune didn’t routinely correct errors until the public editor post was created. Now Wycliff aggressively points out errors. That aspect of his job doesn’t make him very popular with reporters and editors, but he says his actions “create greater public credibility” for the publication.
The Organization of News Ombudsmen conducted a survey a few years ago that revealed another benefit of the job: Newspapers with ombudsmen were sued less frequently than those that hadn’t yet created the role, says Dvorkin, who is vice president of the organization.
That might be one reason why the ranks of media ombudsmen are growing. “The public wants a way to circumvent the kind of barriers and baffles that organizations put up,” he says, “whether government, journalism or within the legal culture or the medical profession.”
Above the Trees looks at leaders and industries outside the law. It lets you draw analogies to how you run your business, how you deal with your clients and how you face your own challenges.