What's up now with NPR's Ombudsman Position?

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(Credit: NPR.org)

Edward Schumacher-Matos’s term as NPR ombudsman was supposed to end this summer but it has been extended through September while NPR continues to look for his successor, NPR spokesperson Isabel Lara told iMediaEthics.

“The search for the ombudsman position is ongoing,” she wrote. (See the current job posting for the Ombudsman/Public Editor role.)

Earlier this summer, NPR faced criticism from NYU journalism professor and First Look Media adviser Jay Rosen for its July job posting for the ombudsman position.  Rosen noted that the job ad said “The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment.”

However, Rosen pointed out that ombudsmen — including NPR’s previous ombudsmen — typically do offer “commentary or judgment” of the news outlet after researching complaints.

In contrast with that recent help wanted ad, in a recent Reddit Ask Me Anything post, Schumacher-Matos described his position as a “public editor and advocate for the listeners.”

“I respond to listener complaints and write independent reports on NPR coverage,” he wrote. “My position is designed as an extra set of eyes on NPR coverage to help maintain standards, as well as to create trust and rapport with our audience.”

An NPR spokesperson told Rosen, “The ombudsman may reach certain conclusions based on a careful examination of that work, but should not be perceived as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong.” The spokesperson said that NPR’s then-acting president and CEO Paul G. Haaga Jr., approved the post. In conclusion, Rosen argued that “NPR has downgraded the ombudsman position,” after speaking with two ombudsmen and NPR.


NPR Changes Job Posting

NPR later “changed its mind,” Rosen updated, and tweaked the job description.  NPR CEO Mohn told Media Matters it was a “mistake” to say the ombudsman wouldn’t give commentary or judgment. Mohn commented: “The Ombudsman must be fully independent and fully transparent in order to do their job on behalf of the public.”

iMediaEthics asked NPR what prompted the change in terminology –whether it was a direct result of Rosen’s report or other factors. “It was a combination of factors,” NPR spokesperson Lara wrote in an e-mail to iMediaEthics.

“This is a critically important role at NPR and the expectations of the job have not changed,” she added. “The Ombudsman must be fully independent and fully transparent in order to do their job on behalf of the public. Earlier language in the job description about not providing commentary or passing judgment was a mistake and we removed it.”

Further, she commented, “NPR CEO Jarl Mohn takes this position very seriously and is committed to recruiting an outstanding journalist for the job and ensuring he or she has the resources required.”

But, NPR’s Margaret Low Smith, senior vice president for news, crtiicized Rosen’s reporting on the ombudsman position, Minnesota Public News reported.

Low Smith, who announced in July she was leaving NPR for Atlantic media organization, said Rosen’s article was “sort of a lazy piece of reporting.” Rosen defended his reporting in his blogpost, underscoring the research and interviews he did.

However, when asked by iMediaEthics about Low Smith’s criticism, NPR said hers wasn’t a comment from NPR, but Low Smith individually. “That was a comment by NPR’s former senior vice president of news in a conference call with colleagues, not a public statement from NPR,” NPR’s Lara said.

NPR Executive Editor Comments on Position

NPR executive editor Madhulika Sikka addressed the importance of an ombudsman in a recent Q & A with Capital New York.

“Newsrooms are notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to self-criticism, so not only do I think the ombudsman position is a good idea for the audience, it is good for us too,” she told Capital New York. She said she didn’t think the position of ombudsman has “changed” but ” the ombudsman has to be as nimble as the rest of us in the newsroom in adjusting to that landscape.”

CORRECTION - September 4, 2014 12:55 PM

The NPR CEO and President who approved the original job posting was Paul G. Haaga Jr., not Jarl Mohn. Mohn became CEO July 1. Haaga was the CEO who approved the posting in June, NPR tells us. We regret the error.

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What’s up now with NPR’s Ombudsman Position?

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