We’ve talked before on iMediaEthics about the role of ombudsmen. As “readers editors,” ombudsmen are the switchboard for reader criticism and the enforcement of ethical and practical journalism rules–a bridge between news communicators and their audience. But some aspects of the ombudsmen’s practice are not enough for the new world of Web-centered journalism, Jeffrey Dvorkin, Professor of Journalism at Ryerson University, Toronto, and the Executive Director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, writes on his blog,calling for cyberombudsmen.
In an essay as part of a study on “the future of media accountability” for UNESCO, Dvorkin writes that we need a new class of “cyberombudsmen,” to hold emerging media (and old media) accountable for adhering to ethical practices. (For a good guideline for what these practices are, he cites CyberJournalist.net.)
Old media ombudsmen often act passively, Dvorkin writes. “Ombudsmen usually wait for the public to identify an area of concern, before moving to action. But that more leisurely approach is bound to end as the public impatience for change grows.”
Dvorkin envisions ‘cyberombudsmen’ “taking a more pro-active role, seeking online the discussion and issues and criticisms that could have an impact on journalism. To borrow a sports analogy, it means playing a lot more ‘offense’ and less on ‘defense,’” he writes.
More than blindly criticizing media, Dvorkin argues, a cyberombudsman would have to be ethically literate and extremely immersed in the media landscape both online and off. “Citizen journalists feel they have the right to challenge legacy media. Unfortunately some of them, too often attempt this without the knowledge or the ethical capacity to do this effectively,” he writes.
Most of this doesn’t sound very groundbreaking. At least according to Dvorkin’s description, it seems that the ‘cyberombudsmen’ he calls for creating already exist on the Web. StinkyJournalism itself works to fill that role wherever possible. And on specific beats, other news watchers, like Gary Schwitzer’s HealthNewsReview.org tirelessly scrutinizes news both online and off.
But as Dvorkin says, while these online arbiters may represent the cause of public accountability much more aggressively than any newspaper ombudsman, they often have limited impact to change the practices of news outlets.
Dvorkin writes, “[Main Stream media] Ombudsmen are uniquely situated and qualified to act as that bridge that can connect the public hunger for accountability with the news organization’s acknowledgment that they must do a better job.” Online ethical critics, however perceptive, lack the institutional connection to make the kind of changes old media ombudsmen do.
It’s also unclear how a force of un-allied (and presumably unpaid) ‘cyberombudsmen’ would effect change on Web writers or bloggers, the main group Dvorkin seems to argue is most lacking in policing. Joining forces with established old media ombudsmen might bring the voices of these Web-watchers in to the newsroom of the New York Times, but how does Dvorkin think ombudsmen or cyber ombudsmen might hold online news sites run by a single person, or even a small group of writers, to a set of ethical guidelines?
Yes, by all means, let’s step up the ‘offense’ on media accountability. But at the same time, we’ll need more than Dvorkin describes here to make that offense a force of change rather than just comment on the Web or in print.
Read his essay in full here.