Some thoughts from the ombudsman conference

More than 40 ombudsmen from around the world met this week in Montreal. I Tweeted some of the ideas emerging from the panels, but wanted to summarize them and other reflections in this post.

The Organization of News Ombudsmen comprises senior scholars, former news executives and experienced journalists. Some are branded ombudsmen, while other are called public editors or reader representatives.

All see their roles as the independent public representative to ensure standards are maintained and even raised at the organizations they scrutinize. Some work in newsrooms, others (like me) work in other parts of an organization's building, and a few work offsite or from home.

if there is a groupthink, it is in the belief in the value of preserving and even enhancing high standards, traditionally grounded in principles of accuracy, fairness and integrity. The three CBC/Radio-Canada speakers at the conference --- Radio-Canada executive VP Sylvain Lafrance, Radio-Canada news chief Alain Saulnier, and CBC News executive editor Esther Enkin --- all spoke of the need of ever-vigilant effort on high standards.

Many ombudsmen adopt new technology to engage the public, although some worry that technology is taking the focus away from content in many newsrooms. While there wasn't a tone of resignation about diminished standards one often sees these days at a journalism-related conference, there was a general sense of a hard struggle afoot at news organizations as they cope with pressures exerted by technology, economics and public expectations.

Some of the guest speakers proposed ideas: Canadian Senator Hugh Segal suggested ombudsmen be more involved in setting standards and preventing problems, while author and journalist Craig Silverman proposed more public involvement in fact-checking.

A few themes emerged:

1. Organizations like WikiLeaks and large-scale leaks of data are going to be more common and news organizations are going to benefit in collaborating with them, but there will be challenges to ensure standards of verification and fairness hold.

2. Journalists are finding it challenging to adhere to demands of impartiality while developing social media presences that call for personable, engaged activity.

3. The public is more forceful, and in some cases more pointed, in its scrutiny of media, and ombudsmen must remain independent in order for the public to trust them.

4. The effectiveness of ombudsmen depends on a shared commitment to high quality in a news organization and the willingness of an organization to listen to the public representative and accept the role's independence. A retiring Swedish ombudsman put it thus: "You can't be the company man. The public must feel you are on its side."

Many at the conference noted that ombudsmen not only augment an organization's reputation for public accountability and accessibility, but save newsrooms in many cases from costly legal challenges. One of the plans for the Organization of News Ombudsmen is to document the economic advantages of having an internal, independent ombudsman.