On ombudsmen, feedback and reporting

Submitted by Blake on Thu, 02/10/2005 - 21:26

I caught an interesting Connection Show the other day where Dick talked with the NPR ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin. NPR has like 30 million listeners a week! They are hiring new people and expanding and growing (thanks to some new grants and funding) while most other media outlets are shrinking and consolidating.

The discussion was largely about feedback, and how the ombudsman position functions within NPR. I felt they talked about allowing feedback like it's some kind of novelty. I thought this was odd because LISNews is completely open. We get feed back on every story instantly, along with email, and the contact us form, we're an open book. There's not really any need for an ombudsman.

They brought up a number of interesting points I couldn't help but think about in relation to what we do here @LISNews.

They say that they've tried to broaden what they report on and try to make it news for the people. National Public Radio is supposed to be for the Public rather than corporations and shareholders.

Who has influence on the media these days? Ask 10 people and you'll get 5 different answers, the callers during this show were no exception. "It's obviously the conservatives." "The entire industry is all a bunch of liberals."

They mentioned how they get their expert opinions. Think Tanks make their people available and have a huge influence on what they report on. While Academics are hard to track down and get on the air. While I'm sure think tanks fall all over themselves to get mentioned anywhere, I found it hard to believe it's hard to find a professor that wouldn't make time to speak to a few million people.

The really amusing thing was the complaints from callers. One caller complained NPR is too liberal, the other complained they're too conservative. How can they answer that? It's such a subjective thing I realized. So many people on both sides are so dumb, angry and loud it's really impossible for them to know how they're doing based on most of the feedback they get. They mentioned they thought how people judge what is reported can be framed largely by what those people believe the direction of the world is taking Most people only want to hear their own opinions reflected back to them. Sort of like Cass Sunstein’s "law of group polarization", "when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs"? They wanted to present not just one perspective or one audience, but rather cover multiple sides, and this is guaranteed to offend.

An interesting point was news organizations are only really responsible to their shareholders, but not their audience, or if they are it's indirect. That leads to bias, and sensationalism. I'm not sure for-profit corporations always perform most effectively in all industries. I'm also not sure what a workable alternative would be in most cases, but NPR seems pretty decent most of the time in the media arena. This is one reason I'm happy that we're not supported by ads at this point here @LISNews. The Google ads pay for a little less than half of the cost of hosting LISNews, and since I have no control over what ads show up, I need not worry about offending our advertisers.

Some interesting comments on language and how things are framed and repeated from news outlets influences how people hear a story. They mentioned the need to be more skeptical and tougher on news sources. Reporters need to be skeptical, careful of words and phrases from any sources. This, of course, takes time and money, is the competition between media outlets to blame? Is the rush to be first with a story blinding news outlets to the propaganda they repeat from think tanks and spokespeople? Things need to be tested and challenged they said repeatedly.

An interesting phrase was "Citizens first and listeners second." They say when they choose what to report they choose to inform the readers, because their job is not to deliver ears to advertisers, but rather report and then let people decide. NPR is important because (they said) it's reliable and not ad driven, it serves it's listeners.

They mentioned how they seek to put things in context, to make useful news available and really explain it well.

So how can we make LISNews better? What issues can we report on? Who do we need to challenge what we post? Do we need an ombudsman? Do blogs need ombudsman?