In September, Heather Mallick wrote a cbc.ca column about Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin that sparked hundreds of complaints and questions about how editors could allow it to run. Then, during the federal election campaign in early October, CTV aired the false starts of an interview with then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, even though reporter Steve Murphy had promised Dion’s team that wouldn’t happen.
The two corporations handled the cases differently. CBC’s ombudsman for English services, Vince Carlin, wrote a lengthy report that considered whether Mallick’s column met editorial standards; CTV never offered a detailed explanation and the network had no independent ombud to investigate the matter. In fact, in Canada, only CBC and the Toronto Star do (though Kathy English, who has the position at the Star and writes a column in the paper approximately every two weeks, uses public editor as her title.)
Don Sellar, who was the Star‘s ombud from 1992 to 2005, agreed to give the RRJOnline some perspective on the job.
DS: The test is what you’re able to say in your column. [Former Star publisher and editor] John Honderich and [former publisher] Michael Goldbloom did not interfere with what I was doing. They supported the office and that was great. If you have an independent ombud who’s backed by the publisher, you have an opportunity to correct mistakes faster and more effectively. You also get a debate going in your own newsroom about what’s the right thing to do. And if you have a person who’s not just an editor, who’s not involved in the day-to-day production, that advice can be really important.
On the near extinction of ombuds in the country:
Newspapers like to practice oversight on every public agency-the police, teachers, the rich and powerful, and so on-but they don’t like to have oversight practiced on themselves as much. That’s part of it. Also, I think a lot of them do not want to spend the money because it’s expensive. An editor at the Montreal Gazette used to say, “Hey, I had a choice: I could have two more reporters in the newsroom or I could have an ombud.” And she went for the two reporters. I know there are economic imperatives, but I also believe you’ve got to invest some money in the ethical dimension of your publication.
Publishers of daily newspapers used to be journalists. But there aren’t many of them around anymore. I think John Honderich was one of the last. People who are publishers of newspapers now come from the business side. They have to pay attention to the notion of shareholder value and all that stuff that gets imposed upon them from higher-ups in the companies.
For example, a friend of mine, Jim Stott formerly at the Calgary Herald-he was replaced with an answering machine! I had another friend, Barry Mullen, formerly at the Winnipeg Free Press-he was fired because he actually dared to write a column in which he criticized the news judgment of the Free Press. In an early edition of the paper, the editors thought the Los Angeles riots about the killing of Rodney King only deserved to be on page 26 or something, and Mullen thought it was a bigger story than that. He said so and he got fired. That was appalling. But newsrooms are awfully thin-skinned.
On the relationship with the newsroom:
Even if the ombud is just stimulating discussion in the newsroom, that’s a good thing! I was always amazed that reporters wanted to talk to me. I liked to go out to the newsroom and hang out a little bit, even on occasions when I didn’t have an ugly piece of paper in my hand related to some problem we had that was going to require a correction. I found that there were reporters at the Star whose standards were higher than the policy manual called for, and that used to thrill me!
Don’t ever get the idea that I think an ombud is the solution to all of the problems a media outlet might have. An ombud has to exist in a culture that’s open and accountable. An ombud sends a message to a newsroom that standards matter. But so much depends on the attitudes of the people at the top of the newsroom and the publisher. If those people are committed to doing journalism better, I think the ombud becomes a tool to improve the newspaper.
On CTV’s decision to air the Dion gaffe:
I think a post-mortem would have been useful. Did I hear a voice in the background saying that it would be OK to re-do it? Who was that agreeing with the reporter who agreed on air to re-start? I would like to know more about CTV’s policy and how CTV operates. I think it’s a great mystery. How often does CTV restart interviews? Does the company allow reporters to re-do their questions? There are a lot of unanswered questions.
There’s a shortcoming in the CBC structure. Its ombuds [for English-services CBC, and French-services CBC] don’t have a regular slot on the radio or television to vent, educate, amuse!
On the Star changing its ombud’s title to public editor:
Personally, I don’t like it. I think ombud is a better title because it strengthens the notion that the person is independent. What’s a public editor? It’s just another editor. But that’s my own opinion.