2008 Silha Lecturer Says Media Organizations Need Ombuds

Silha Lecturer Siobhain Butterworth was introduced as “a member of an endangered species.” As readers’ editor, or internal ombudsman, for The Guardian newspaper in London, Butterworth is among a shrinking group of editors whose primary responsibility is to address reader complaints, clarifications, and corrections in the daily newspaper and online.

In introducing Butterworth’s Oct. 6, 2008 lecture, entitled “Raise Your Hand if You’re a Journalist: Does Responsible Reporting Need a Legal Defense?” Silha Center director and professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota Jane Kirtley pointed out a recent Editor & Publisher magazine report that between September 2007 and September 2008, 10 U.S. newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, The Sun of Baltimore, the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, dropped their ombudsmen as part of wider financial cuts, suggesting that newspapers increasingly consider the position expendable.

Butterworth contends that, to the contrary, in a digital age that is raising fundamental questions about who is a journalist and demanding greater transparency from news organizations about reporting and news gathering, having someone who answers directly to readers, users, and the audience may be more important now than ever before. Butterworth said that she considers herself to be under a legal as well as moral obligation to balance freedom of expression with rights to reputation or privacy asserted by complainants who call, write, and e-mail her. “Journalism doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and neither does media law,” Butterworth said. “Legal cases inform journalistic behavior and vice versa.”

During a wide-ranging lecture, Butterworth explored questions of what constitutes responsible journalism, who is a journalist in the digital age, whether journalists should be prepared to “own up to their own mistakes,” whether journalists who act responsibly need legal defenses, what legal responses are available for responsible reporting, and what is the role of a readers’ editor, or ombudsman, in approaching the problems raised by these questions.

Butterworth said that to a certain extent, the legal definition of responsible reporting “depends on what side of the Atlantic you are on.” An American standard of responsible reporting in the context of defamation of public figures, “actual malice,” was explained in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), as knowledge of a report’s falsity or a reckless disregard for whether it was true or not. Butterworth explained that Britain’s landmark high court case in reporter responsibility was 2001’s Reynolds v. Times Newspapers, [2001] 2 AC 127, in which Lord Donald Nicholls set out the 10 “Nicholls factors” for courts to consider in judging whether a report was published responsibly, including: the seriousness of the allegations; the nature of the information, such as its level of public interest; the source of the information; the steps taken to verify the report; the urgency of the report; and whether comment was sought from the subject of the report.

Butterworth described how, although the high court specified in Reynolds that all 10 factors did not necessarily need to be satisfied or proven for a news organization to prevail in a lawsuit, many lower courts took the test literally until the 2006 case Jameel v. Wall Street Journal, [2006] UKHL 44, when the high court clarified its position on the “Nicholls factors.” There the court ruled that significant weight should be given to a report’s level of public interest and the professional judgment of an editor or journalist, and that anonymous sources can be an important and credible part of the journalistic process, Butterworth said.

Butterworth said that standards of responsible reporting also come from journalists and scholars, such as Americans Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel and their 10 “Elements of Journalism,” or Guardian patriarch C.P. Scott, who served as editor of the Manchester Guardian, as it was previously known, for 50 years. Parts of Scott’s essay celebrating the newspaper’s 1921 centennial are central principles of the modern day liberal ideology of The Guardian newspaper and Web site, such as “comment is free, but facts are sacred,” and “the voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard; it is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair.”

In what she called “an era of mass self-publication,” Butterworth said that journalism and responsible journalism have become harder to define, which she said is both an ethical and a legal problem. Even in the context of an established news organization like The Guardian, the different formats and standards of print and online publication have raised new questions, such as “should all content on a newspaper’s Web site be treated as journalistic content? And if so, do the same journalistic standards apply across the board?”

Throughout the lecture, and during the question and answer portion of the event, Butterworth gave examples of the increasingly complicated choices journalists and news organizations must make in deciding what to print or post online, and what to retract, take down, or correct. The news is no longer “tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping,” Butterworth said. “Now it’s a lot more like a very permanent tattoo.”

In closing, Butterworth observed that changes in the economic model of the traditional news organization may eventually make the readers’ editor, internal ombudsman, or readers’ representative obsolete, or at least economically impractical, but readers and audiences will continue to demand standards of responsibility and transparency from journalists, who should be willing to raise their hands when they make mistakes or act irresponsibly.

The lecture was held before an overflow crowd at the Cowles Auditorium on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus. The annual Silha Lecture and other Silha Center activities are made possible by a generous endowment from the late Otto Silha and his wife, Helen.

– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor

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