Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bloggers need an Ombudsman

Ask any First Amendment lawyer and they'll tell you that the press have the right to be wrong. Journalists can and do make mistakes all the time, and in the vast majority of cases the usual recourse is to print a correction after the fact, usually unsatisfactorily buried somewhere at the back of the newspaper. But what happens when this isn't enough, when the law is broken, or when there's a disagreement about the facts of the issue?

Enter the Ombudsman. Almost all major daily newspaper and most magazines employ someone to act as a referee between the publication, its editors and reports, and external parties. The Ombud* works off a code of business ethics and the existing laws that protect against libel, slander and the like. They will vet a complaint and try and arrive at a fair outcome. They exist as a recognition that the mass media command a loud megaphone, and the subjects of which they write usually do not.

Often, the Ombudsman is trying to balance contradictory ethical and legal issues, such as with the New York Times' coverage of the Duke University rape case. Other times, they're dealing with issues that can seem entirely absurd, as with criticisms leveled by Fox News at producers of the kids show Sesame Street, which did a very funny parody of cable news shows, including Fox.

Ombudsmen exist in other walks of life too, including politics. Even the large industry analyst firms employ them. And if you blog at a reputable publication's website, the ombudsman will pay attention.

Many blogs now purport to be legit news outlets, and a lot live up to the billing. But to be credible, they need to be accountable – and most fail at this. And having the ability to post a comment at a blog does not in any way constitute a retraction or formal correction.

What bloggers need is an Ombudsman of their own. They need an independent third-party that will provide redress when bloggers get it wrong. Recent FTC rulings could be enforced, along with much broader issues about conflicts of interest. One approach would be to have someone like the Organization of News Ombudsman (ONO) take on the role, possibly by certifying blogs that they work with and providing an Ombudsman that could deal with complaints across their member bloggers.

Credibility is one of the hallmarks of great journalism, and independent bloggers will struggle to gain this level of trust with their readers until they are more accountable.

*(apparently a gender-neutral and politically correct reference, although to me it sounds like something you'd plant in your yard)