Last week more than 40 news ombudsmen from across the world met at Los Angeles for three days discussing the challenges facing not just news ombudsmen but journalism in its entirety. There were some fundamental differences in our work as some of the participants were standards editor, whose work or intervention happens before the publication or broadcast, and the rest were like the Readers’ Editor of this newspaper, whose work is clearly post publication. But our concerns were the same: ensuring accuracy, fairness, balance and accountability in the journalistic output of the respective organisations.

Stephen Pritchard, the Readers’ Editor of Observer in the U.K. and president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), and Jeffrey Dvorkin, the executive director of ONO and an academic, came up with a set of questions that brought out the serious challenges facing quality journalism across the planet. Among the topics for discussion: whether ombudsmen should be in the business of protecting sources. It may seem obvious to journalists, but the question becomes more complicated when a reporter’s credibility is involved and whether a news organisation owes a higher obligation to the public or to the reporter. Should ombudsmen correct opinion-based journalists, aka, columnists? Should ombudsmen intervene when the news organisation engages in “pack journalism” even if the public does not object? “Sponsored content” is one way in which newspapers have journalists writing advertising copy. It saves money for the paper, but does it sully the reputation of the journalists? And what should ombudsmen do when it happens? Also we looked at how the role of the news ombudsman itself, has changed, and whether ombudsmen need to reassess their traditional position inside a media organisation. Should they always remain at a distance from the editorial processes? Or should they be more involved as “trusted advisers” not only to the public, but also to journalists and management as well?

There were no easy answers. The question of protecting the sources became very urgent issue in face of the Justice Department of the United States subpoenaing the telephone records of the international news agency, the Associated Press. Although the Justice Department has not explained why it sought phone records from the AP, according to Associated Press President Gary Pruitt, it was a May 7, 2012, story that disclosed details of a successful CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden that has led to the crackdown. The AP withheld that story at the request of government officials who felt it would jeopardise national security but released it only after two government entities said that the threat had passed. “We respected that, we acted responsibly, we held the story,” Pruitt said.

Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the New York Times, in her column explained in a succinct manner why this is an issue for all media organisations and not just the AP. She wrote: “Reporters get their information from sources. They need to be able to protect those sources and sometimes offer them confidentiality. If they can’t be sure about that – and it looks increasingly like they can’t – the sources will dry up. And so will the information. Sad to say, that seems to be exactly what the Justice Department has in mind with its leak investigations.”

Edward Wasserman, Dean, University of California, Berkeley School of Journalism, painted a rather disturbing image of what was happening in the United States in his presentation to the gathered ombudsmen. He said: “Obama took office pledging tolerance and even support for whistleblowers, but instead is prosecuting them with a zeal that’s historically unprecedented. His Justice Department has conducted six prosecutions over leaks of classified information to reporters. Five involve the Espionage Act, a powerful law that had previously been used only four times since it was enacted in 1917 to prosecute spies.”

Expanding further on the negative side of the technological breakthroughs, Prof. Wasserman said “in the post-9/11 explosion in government intercepts, electronic surveillance, and data capture of all imaginable kinds – the NSA is estimated to have intercepted 15 to 20 trillion communications in the past decade – the secrecy police have vast new ways to identify leakers.” He quoted a chilling declaration by a national security representative: “We’re not going to subpoena reporters in the future. We don’t need to. We know who you’re talking to.”

There was an undeclared unanimity on the need for ombudsmen to do their part to protect and defend sources, an integral part of any good investigative journalism. The ombudsmen columns may help to flag these concerns. But, we need to do more.


A cause for concernMarch 4, 2013