The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Ombud hell - the fieriest pit?

The media ombudsmen I read are, so far as I can tell from their pieces, all reasonable guys and girls one would be happy to share a beer with.

The reason why their stuff, by and large, leads me to visceral feelings of loathing and contempt is that theirs is essentially a displacement activity. Their roles are designed to allow the suits to tick the box and move on.

Take, for instance, the effort of the San Diego Union-Tribune's Gina Lubrano yesterday. A sort of an end-of-year upsum, inter-outlet comparison and general shooting of the breeze on the subject of newspaper corrections.

She says
Last year, the Union-Tribune carried 676 corrections and clarifications, the most in the four years I've been keeping a daily tally of errors. That's 4 percent more than 2002. I can't prove it, but I suspect it's an all-time high.

I'm no statistical expert, but I suspect a 4% rise is unlikely to be statistically significant at the 95% level.

She and her fellow ombuds have compared notes: last year's corrections
range from a low of 321 at The Tennessean in Nashville to 1,223 for The Boston Globe.

She explains that
Newspapers have different thresholds for correcting errors. For example, one of the corrections in the Union-Tribune last month was about where a fictional character in a film grew up. I suspect that would not be corrected by some newspapers.

You don't say...

As is true any year, numerous errors tallied in 2003 could have been avoided. Among them were wrong telephone numbers, misspelled names or wrong Web site addresses. They represent facts that could have been checked but weren't. Or not checked thoroughly enough.

Enough with the trivia already!

My guess is that, in the taxonomy of the Union-Tribune, Ms Lubrano is one of the lower forms of life: fit to correct names, but not invited in by the editorial board to discuss policy issues. Like, say, the resources to be devoted to covering the war, or the Jackson trial. Or the budgeting for investigative journalism (if any).

And her existence (as Reader's Representative - how many readers were involved with her appointment, I wonder?) allows the management to avoid issues of greater involvement of readers in editorial matters. Developing a dialogue, not only on nitpicks but on all sorts of editorial decisions.

Readers should be welcomed into the editorial process not as a sop or a fad, but because their contributions can, if properly managed [1], actually enhance the quality of the product.

There are, no doubt, big cultural, technical and financial obstacles to perfecting such a system. But the argument that the existence of the ombudsmen makes it unnecessary even to consider the idea may be the most serious obstacle of all.

  1. I'm not suggesting setting up a readers' co-op!


The Boston Globe article on those 1,223 errors.

Apparently, the number is
up from 901 the year before. The increase is more than double the previous year, which in turn was almost double the year before that. Together they send the trend sharply upward from where it had hovered for a decade.
(There's some more analysis of the 2003 number.)

The piece wonders whether the increase is down to more errors or better detection. Then, on countermeasures, it says
One strategy is already in place: In July the Globe began an accountability system that lets the paper track who is prone to error. "With a couple of reporters we have already had discussions, and those discussions were highly productive in reducing errors," says Baron. The paper has also held a training session on how to fact-check a story. The paper should be proud of those efforts.

A couple of stiff talkings-to and a training session? Pride should wait upon rather more substantial achievements, surely?

The ombud does show a modicum of scepticism:
I look forward to seeing them accompanied by a cultural shift, already underway, that puts as much emphasis on getting stories right as it does on getting them first. To make that happen, staffers must be given the time and support needed to make fact-checking a routine part of their duties, even if that is sometimes difficult in an era of tight resources.

The plain fact is that no man can be his own editor [1] - and that the editorial process (at all levels) is as important as the originating one - and deserves resources commensurate with the tasks required.

Fewer stories, better edited is not likely to get the advertising honchos enthused, though...

  1. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice...

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