Given that the First Amendment precludes the government from being an actual “watchdog on news media,” who else steps in to call the news media to account?
In today’s world, increasingly it is citizen-critics or organizations outside mainstream journalism, empowered by the Web’s ability for two-way conversations and comments, and by independence from past restraints of expensive printing presses and broadcast machinery.
Free-standing journalism reviews at one time also helped fill the role, but their numbers are down. The idea of press councils to review and judge press performance still exists, though the real numbers are minuscule.
But there’s one more approach, present in about 25 news organizations: An in-house public critic, the ombudsman. In various ways and formats, those ombudsmen – down from 40 such positions just a few years ago – tackle complaints, evaluate newsgathering and arbitrate claims of misreporting, distortion and even the absence of coverage.
Sometimes called “reader advocate” or “public editor,” the idea of an on-the-payroll, independent reviewer is a relatively new concept in the United States – about a half-century old in its current form.
Their very-public presence means correcting faults in public. Whistleblowers exist in many kinds of businesses, but rarely are they paid to operate in plain view from the start – which can result in some very-public spats.
Case in point: The current flap inside National Public Radio over a 2011 report critical of South Dakota’s state-funded efforts that relocated what the report said was a surprisingly high number of Native American children into foster care.
NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos spent more than a year checking the report and found that it was “fundamentally flawed,” according to a story posted on NPR’s online news site.
The original NPR report said state authorities appeared to disregard the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which favors placing Native American children with relatives or other Native American families before other options – and may have done so because of cultural bias and to gain increased federal aid to support such placements, involving as much as $100 million.
Both Schumacher-Matos and NPR News agree that figure isn’t correct. But they disagree over the tone of some of the report, and whether state officials’ views were properly represented. In the end, the ombudsman’s 80-page critique may well be more significant for opining on a story missed or underreported than about factual errors.
NPR’s management stands by the story’s essentials, while conceding some mistakes. But, “I had a gnawing sense that the real issue was deeper than the story,” Schumacher-Matos wrote.
The ombudsman wrote that “the centrally relevant matter of child neglect is simply dismissed. That many of the foster decisions, meanwhile, are in fact made by the tribes’ own independent judges goes unreported altogether. The crucial context of social ills and a crisis of Indian family breakdowns on the state’s reservations are also all but missing.”
Disagreements over the scope and focus of news reports are the daily stuff of news meetings and editor-correspondent discussion – but all of that generally takes place in private. The NPR situation affords a unique peek into the somewhat messy process of newsgathering and reporting, replete with individual judgment calls and editing decisions. Such a real view contrasts with what some see as a monolithic news-media machine, where political views guide each and every move and shape every story.
Notable also is that no government-based review board or state appointed “truth judge” will rule on the NPR situation, leaving it up to the public to decide with its eyes and ears.
Newsrooms large and small have been battered by economic hardship and traditional audiences have been splintered by new ways of getting information. What’s left to sustain a free press is a focus on credibility – fair and truthful reporting – that surveys and polls say the public wants.
More news operations should provide for the kind of public follow-up and self-critique that NPR engaged in, both for the sake of accuracy and to sustain a free press. By holding itself accountable with the same vigor the news media employs on others, it will continue to give us the credible “watchdog on government” that the nation’s Founders envisioned.
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of its First Amendment Center. E-mail him at email@example.com.