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Jun 16 2005

In Depth

News Ombudsmen and Stress

Do news ombudsmen have a role to play in identifying journalists in trauma?

Do news ombudsmen have a role to play in identifying journalists in trauma?

The idea occurred to many of us, after Mark Brayne spoke about the Dart Center to about 50 members of the Organization of News Ombudsmen when we met in London in May at our annual conference.

We heard about the work of the Dart Center and what is being done to help journalists’ psychological distress.

It was a powerful evocation of the demands that are placed on war reporters and the pressures that they and their journalistic managers are under.

Normally, news ombudsmen (no strangers to certain forms of stress themselves) don’t deal directly with reporters. But many of us come out of editorial and managerial ranks. All of us are well aware of the early signs of burn out.

So what do ombudsmen do? And how can they be more sensitive to some of the warning signs?

First, a job description: Our jobs as public ombudsmen come usually at mid- or late career. All of us are products of our journalistic systems, in print and broadcasting. We are chosen, it is believed, because we know how journalism works. We understand its strengths and its weaknesses. Many of us only are in this role for a few years before either being rotated back into the newsroom, or if we are of a more advanced stage of our careers, moving into retirement.

What we do on behalf of our news organizations is to act as independent agents of our listeners, readers and viewers. We are called ombudsmen/women, readers’ representatives, or readers’ editors. In French we are médiateurs, in Portuguese, provadores. We mediate and provide in a variety of language.

How do we work? Ombudsmen have to be good listeners. We need to be able to recognize the difference between a heartfelt complaint and a write-in campaign. Sometimes, the campaigners have identified something valuable and even though our in-trays are inundated with repetitious complaints, there might be something worth looking into.

An ombudsman has to take the complaints seriously, but not personally. If the public had a sense of respect and deference to the fourth estate, it vanished long ago, probably with the quill pen. E-mail has democratized relations between the masses and the mass media. It has certainly coarsened public discourse.

But frequently, the public is able to sense when something is amiss. Listeners, viewers and readers have a unique perspective on journalism. They often can tell when a report has gone wrong. In radio or television, it may be a tonal quality where the reporter sounds uncharacteristically impassioned. In print, readers may sense a direction that seems at odds with how the newspaper usually reports the story. They are quick to notice changes that may elude the editors.

I have been surprised that an editor does not notice the early signs that his or her reporter is under stress. Possibly this is because the editor may be too close to the story and as such may be pushing the reporter too hard.

The reporter may feel that he or she cannot protest against the editor, for fear of losing the assignment. Often small indications start to emerge that there is a problem:

As a manager, the first indications may be that an editor is spending more time than usual getting the report and the reporter ready for air.

Is there a “vibe” around about how a reporter is becoming a “high-maintenance” person?

But almost as often, reporters (whose attitudes towards their editors can also be fraught) can also sense burn out in their editors, but may not have an easy way to vent their concerns.

Enter the ombudsmen.

At our recent conference in London, the work of the Dart Center sounded all too familiar to many of us.

Without realizing it, many ombudsmen have a role adjacent to the foreign correspondents as 'first responders.' Ombudsmen frequently deal not with the effect of the reporting on the reporters, but with the effect of the reporting on the readers, listeners and viewers.

Almost all of us have taken phone calls and e-mails from people who are distraught or furious by what they have just encountered in their morning newspaper or on the breakfast program.

Many of us in ONO felt reassured by Mark Brayne’s observations about journalism. As agents for the audiences, we feel the consequences of the reporting in a way that is different from the often more detached managers and editors.

ONO has been around for 25 years. The organization is experiencing a sudden growth spurt, in part because news media around the world sense that something has gone wrong with both the practice of journalism and the public’s sense of trust in mass media. Our role as ombudsmen and women is to act as the agent of the listeners, viewers and readers. Our hopes are twofold: To create an environment of greater transparency and accountability inside the usually defensive newsrooms and to raise standards of media literacy amongst the public. In short, ombudsmen must find a way in which journalism can play a civic and civil role in society.

Ombudsmen are appointed by a news organization usually from inside the ranks of the organization, but not always. They come into the position as experienced journalists, often in mid or late career.

The role was sometimes an interim position for a senior journalist, and some have described it as “an antechamber to retirement.” But the recent spate of high-profile gaffes and fumbles has given the role of the ombudsman a much more demanding position in his or her news organization. Many news organizations have reached into their ranks to appoint journalists who are often at the top of their game to be the newspaper’s ombudsman.

But as the pressure and scrutiny on news organizations increase, so do the demands on the ombudsmen.

Doing the job of reader/listener/viewer representative, can be onerous and stressful. At the London meeting, there was much discussion among the “’buds” about handling the deluge of calls and emails, as well as dealing with the uncomfortable but necessary isolation from the camaraderie of the newsroom culture.

But what used to be seen as an exile, is now turned into a much more challenging aspect of a journalistic career. “It is,” said one who has done the job for more than five years, “ the most interesting journalistic job I’ve ever done.”

In a politically fractious environment, ombudsmen extend their support for the audiences, and at the same time, they are increasingly becoming a sounding board for journalists. Not surprisingly, issues of ombudsman-related stresses are also beginning to emerge.

That shared awareness of how that stress can effect us all, provided by the Dart Center was of great help and comfort to the ONO conference attendees.

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Jeffrey Dvorkin

  • Jeffrey Dvorkin is news ombudsman for National Public Radio.

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