Talking Complaints

Ombudsman

April 11, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

...TC Newspaper ombudsmen have their lighter moments. They get unruly when they swap especially funny calls and corrections.

Jerry Finch, of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, calls his column "Ombuzzard" because he hangs around, "looming over reporters and picking at the bones."

Phil Record, ombudsman at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, gets a 3 a.m. call at home some days from a reader who has just tried another one of the paper's personals romance ads. "It has not been fruitful" is her invariable message.

Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun has 25 ombudsmen listening to up to 250 daily readers call six days a week. Takeshi Ito, the chief ombudsman, says readers want more information on a story or they vent political feelings. But they may be just drunk and blast the paper when the powerful Yomiuri Giants lose. (The paper owns the baseball team).

We muse about choreographed calls on guns, abortion and taxes. Radio show hosts or lobby groups love to point their

listeners at a favorite target, the local papers. Fans oblige and, asked for specifics, may say, "I don't know, I didn't read it."

Holding down what the American Journalism Review calls "the loneliest job in the newsroom," ombudsmen since 1980 have had their own support group, the Organization of News Ombudsmen, (O.N.O., or "Oh, No!" to some staffers).

A few days ago, 34 ombudsmen pointed fingers, wrung hands and splashed in pools of political correctness in their annual meeting, at College Park. They recounted weird calls. Some giggled when one member said his paper runs few corrections because its reporters are well-trained and make few mistakes.

They may be fun conventioneers who laugh, tell lies and drink, but a better tip-off is that they met at the business-like adult education center of the University of Maryland. Among the attendees were members from Japan, Israel and Brazil. Altogether, they're a serious bunch of 52 do-gooders, 34 of them in the United States and seven in Canada.

Five women and a few non-white members belong. The women accept the word "ombudsman" (pronounced OM-buds-man) because it's a Scandinavian word meaning an intermediary agent, no gender implied. Ombudsmanship began in Sweden in 1809 when the government appointed an agent to represent people in complaints against it.

The Louisville Courier-Journal started the newspaper trend in this country in 1967. It's not a growth industry. Two years ago, about six papers hired ombudsmen for the first time, but another six who left were not replaced. Last year, it was one and one.

Most editors and publishers, who have enough trouble without ombuzzards staring at them, say they themselves talk with readers. Some do, some don't. The benefits may be that ombudsmen open an organized window to readers, help improve newsroom awareness of problems, correct some things, pass on story tips and, yes, are convenient dump sites for nasty calls.

The College Park meeting was largely serious stuff. For example:

Jay Black, co-author of a new comprehensive handbook, "Doing Ethics in Journalism," said the press failed Arthur Ashe, his privacy and readers in reporting against his wishes that he had the HIV virus. They didn't ask themselves: How much damage will I do? How much protection does Mr. Ashe deserve? Can I clearly justify this?

Helen Benedict, author of "Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes," sharply questioned male-oriented decisions on covering some highly publicized rape cases such as the "New York Preppie" who strangled a woman during sex. Ms. Benedict charged that newspapers don't examine sexual violence in the context of gender relations. I think a major media problem is also underreporting of rapes.

Jean Griffith-Thompson and John Rivera, an editor and a reporter for The Sun, told stories of insensitivity or ignorance in newsrooms that found their way into news stories. They suggested the problem was not racism but ineffective journalism, caused by news people being unfamiliar and uncomfortable with ethnic, racial groups other than their own.

Larry Sabato, author of "Feeding Frenzy," faulted the big media for its "lowest common denominator" rumor-mongering in politics, such as reviving old, unconfirmed reports of supposed paramours of Bill Clinton and President Bush last year. A Midwestern ombudsman questioned his studying only the usual East Coast media giants.

Ombudsmen assemble next spring again in Minneapolis-St. Paul. They'll award prizes for the year's most peculiar calls and corrections, maybe a grand prize for best clarification.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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