Ombudsman in media: a requisite to restore public trust
Believe nothing,no matter where you read it or who has said it,
not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason
and your own common sense.
Journalists worldwide are facing a question relating to credibility of what they produce everyday as news reports, aimed at assisting people to take informed decisions on matters that affect theirown lives—and of the societies they belong to.Their audiences—comprising of readers,listeners and viewers—are increasingly getting sceptical about the reliability of what they read or watch regularly. Audiences tend to suspect whether or not they are beinghelped by the media in their bid to exercise their ‘right to be informed’ which is a vital right guaranteed by the constitutionin countries under democratic dispensation.
Nepal is no exception
As has been in case since 1951, Nepal’s latest constitution, issued in 2015,is a democratic one with provisions for timely amendments. While the elections in 2017 witnessed a rise of an alliance of two parties committed to the Communist ideology, the outcome however is unlikely to fundamentally alter their public undertakings to abide by the statute based on competitive politics. And their continued participation in polls held thus far is a proof of their pledge to work in a democratic system.
Article 17 of the constitution ensures that every Nepali citizen enjoys “freedom of opinion and expression”, among others.The other relevant Articles reinforce the essence of this Article which, like all other rights and freedoms, comes under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. In other words, freedom of opinion and expression is an inalienable right conferred to each citizen by the constitution. However, some journalists often make a mistake by assuming that the ‘freedom’ they exercise comes not from constitution but from their proprietors or publishers. Little do they realise that it is only the salary and perks that come from proprietors or owners; and that proprietors have no power or authority to give or protect the freedom already guaranteed by the constitution. But somejournalists are seem to be living under illusion are inflicting harm, wittingly or otherwise, to the very people they are expected to serve. Here is an example:
Incidentally, publishers or proprietors —as the case may be—are presumed to explicitly understand that theirs is a business that is based on citizens’ constitutional rights and privileges. To be specific, running media outlets is a distinct business requiring entrepreneurs to be service-oriented. It is not something like opening an outlet of a factory producing chocolates or toothpaste, or launching a travel agency although it is also a service industry. Keeping profit margins low and simultaneously offering inexpensive services to common people are a direct challenge to those keen to invest in media outlets. Quality has to be fully assured.
Quality unquestionably pertains to reliability—reliability of pieces of information churned out as news stories to the members of the public, either through print, or via airwaves or online. People depend on such stories as long as these are credible. And credibility is derived through a number of measures including the ones taken to get feedback from audiences. The platform of ‘letters to the editor’ is a traditional one, and is clearly inadequate in these technologically advanced times when interactive methods provide channels for instant responses and comments. Omnipresence of social media has exerted additional pressures on competitive,mainstream media most of which also run their own web/internet editions.
Media Ombudsman, as experiences in countries with a long press history indicate, can be a handy tool for overcoming some of the contemporary challenges in this sector. One of such hurdle pertains to worldwide concerns for rapidlydeclining media credibility. In the words of Elizabeth Jensen, who calls herself ‘Ombudswoman’of National Public Radio (US),the position of ombudsman/public editor can make substantial contribution towards ‘restoring public trust in the media.’ Michael Getler, who spent 35 years at The Washington Post, the last five as its ombudsman, goes a bit further and offers a broader reason: ‘News organisations seek to hold government, industry and all American institutions to account and they need to do the same to their segment of our system of checks and balances.’ In fact, it was the Post in 1970, under editorship of Ben Bradlee, which established a ‘standard-setting ombudsman position—with a Sunday column.’ But that position was abolished in 2013 ostensibly due to budgetary considerations. Getler became ‘sad’ when The New York Times also eliminated this post in May 2017. Times had first appointed an independent ombudsman shortly after the scandal of fabrication and plagiarism involving reporter Jayson Blair became public, in 2003.
Media organisations in the UK and India have also found ombudsman’s role significantly useful in their efforts towards self-regulation. The media industry, especially in the UK, initially thought it wise to appoint ombudsmen fearing threat of restrictive legislation, because as a readers’ representative, the ombudsman collected complaints and suggestions, analysed them and offered editor his recommendations for action. Like in the US, newspapers in UK and India now routinely run a column called Corrections & Clarifications. Ian Mayes, the first ombudsman (formal title Readers’ Editor) of UK’s Guardian newspaper in 1997, wanted to make himself a ‘bridge between readers and journalists.’
Ombudsman’s function can be generally likened to an internal auditor of an agency or a government department where an efficient auditor keeps his office in good financial health, leaving little room for external scrutiny. Similarly, a media house with a competent ombudsman/public editor can deftly handle emerging issues as well as ongoing controversies some of which can have potentials to inflict damages on credibility of contents, often attracting costly law suits.
Closer home, The Hindu newspaper in India also has an ombudsman whose official title is readers’editor. S/he is appointed to be ‘independent, full-time internal ombudsman’ for the paper.It is modelled on the Guardian of the United Kingdom. The Hindu created this position on the 127th year of its appearance in public. And it is meant to ensure maintenance of high standards of accuracy, fairness, and balance in the paper’s reporting and writing. NDTV is perhaps the first Indian broadcaster to appoint its first ombudsman in 2010; Soli Sorabjee, a former attorney general, accepted that position on an honorary basis.
The Guardian’s experience has been particularly exciting, and can provide a lesson or two to others in the media elsewhere. Alan Rusbridger, years before he became the editor The Guardian, was Washington correspondent for another British newspaper. There he got impressed by the manner The New York Times promptly corrected its mistakes. The Washington Post and some other papers had already employed their first ombudsman to take note of readers’ comments and complaints independently, and write about them regularly. Rusbridger was particularly influenced by the Post’s political columnist David S. Broder who, in 1973, was of the view that journalists producing newspapers need to tell their readers straightaway: ‘it’s the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected version.’ As editor of the Guardian several years later, Rusbridger created the position of a readers’ editor, and in the process surrendered some of his own editorial power.
The Guardian now has its fourth ‘readers’ editor’ in Paul Chadwick with whom I exchanged emails while preparing this article. The role he accepted in June 2017 is a visibly expanded one as is evidenced by the title he holds: Global Readers’ Editor. ‘The Guardian audience now comprises readers, listeners and viewers,’ he says. Besides, it now has editions in the US and Australia. Like his peers and predecessors, Chadwick believes an authentic self-regulation helps both readers and journalists. His declared approach is as follows: ‘Journalism which is scrutinised—the way journalists scrutinised others—and proved to be sound can build trust and confidence.’
The effectiveness of media ombudsman appears to have impressed even governments in some countries. British authorities, for instance, are purportedly considering to create an ‘internet ombudsman’ to deal with complaints about hate crimes.
Where are we?
Sadly, we are nowhere near a genuine desire, let alone a pledge, to supply unadulterated news services far and wide. Readers who needed to be given staples to transform themselves to responsible citizens are, on the contrary, being reduced to mere consumers.
True, expansion of media outlets and activities has been fast and extensive in Nepal, particularly after the political changes of 1990. Investments in private sector have increased markedly. And with a higher literacy rate, the readership too has augmented—if the online diaspora abroad are also included. However, there have not been concomitant changes and improvements to raise the quality of contents offered through print as well as broadcast mediums. Focus of owners of media houses is obviously on profits, and they have no reason to be painstakingly worried for inconveniences caused to the audiences.If a bottle of water appears to contain contaminations the buyer goes to the authorities to have it instantly examined, and s/he would drink water only after it is certified potable. But where would a buyer / reader of a newspaper go even if s/he suspects it to be littered with ‘fake news’ stories? Institution such Press Council Nepal is unlikely to be a handyor decisive mechanism because it lacks competent experts and resources needed to expeditiously handle such cases. Besides, the Council is based in Kathmandu while incidents and accidents are taking place all over the country. Meanwhile, majority of people having access to one or multiple news medium are too credulous to question the media organisations. Understandably, this meek behaviour of recipients continues to make it easy for media owners to appropriate exorbitant profits at the expense of audiences. Obviously, owners are not bothered to invest resources for quality.
Butare owners alone responsible for whatever is going on? Not necessarily.
It may be useful to contextualise here a remark that Professor P. Kharel makes in his book Media for Participatory Democracy: ‘News is not the reflection of actual events; it is a construction by journalists who are subjected to many influences and constraints.’ In a passage elsewhere in the book, Kharelalso alludes to a statement attributed to Walter Lippmann, a prominent figure in American journalism almost a century ago. Most of his observations are found relevant even today. Lippmann’s this statement is one example: opinion is not always formed by direct experiences but through images planted in people’s minds by news accounts.
Needless to emphasise, accurate news accounts are needed to help people form realistic opinions. Media organisations, therefore, are expected to meet this requirement first. This is the right trajectory to gain (and regain) public trust. NPR public editor Elizabeth Jensen mentions that there are ‘steps that can be takento rebuild public trust’.
The first logical step towards this direction, in my opinion, would be to introduce a daily column which is akin to‘Corrections and Clarifications’. There must not be any hesitation to concede that journalists make scores of mistakes and errors on a daily basis. On average, the New York Times runs seven corrections a day, either related to language or facts and figures.
That explains why ‘The Times welcomes complaints about errors that warrant correction’.
Our time to act is now. Any media outlet, Nepali or English, can grab the opportunity to be first in the field.
Let me conclude this article by relating to my own experience with the New York Times. As a former contributor to the Times, I recall an incident when the paper chose to run a correction for a seemingly trivial matter. It was during the Maoist rebellion, and the officer the then Royal Nepal Army had assigned to be its spokesman was Colonel Deepak Gurung. In one of the stories I filed identified him as a colonel but, as I discovered shortly thereafter, his army rank had changed in between: he was promoted to be a brigadier. I informed the editors about this small alteration even if I imagined it would not dent the accuracy of the published story so long as Gurung remained the spokesman. Nevertheless, the editors in New York thought it wise to run a correction.
The writer is Lokaantar’s Editorial Chairman.
This article was first published on 7 May 2018 in The Rising Nepal.