The Globe and Mail, Canada's largest newspaper, has announced the appointment of its first ombudsman.
As Craig Silverman reported for Poynter, citing an internal memo from the paper's editor-in-chief John Stackhouse, Sylvia Stead will be the first Globe and Mail public editor, starting on January 23rd.
Stead is currently an associate editor and has been with the paper for many years, serving in a variety of roles from national to executive editor.
"The creation of this position is a major step for the Globe to make us more transparent and accountable to our readers, and to continue to build our most important asset -- credibility -- in the Canadian market," Stackhouse wrote in the memo reported by Poynter.
Newspapers' conduct has recently come under scrutiny as the rapid changes that technology is making possible and some recent bad behaviour by the media - the UK phone-hacking scandal to name just the most famous example - are posing extra challenges to press credibility.
Accountability is a key concern for newspapers on an ethical level but also on a more profane business one: readers buy newspapers they trust and recognise as a credible and legitimate source of news.
The ombudsman role is based on this need for accountability. Appointing an ombudsman is in itself a declaration of a commitment to transparency.
The ombudsman job could vary in its daily tasks but might include investigating complaints from readers and providing adequate responses, acting as a mediator between the paper and the readers and explaining editorial decisions and newsroom practices. Last but not least, ombudsmen monitor the paper's ethical standards.
Asked by Silverman about how her job will be organised, Stead said details haven't been settled yet as she's gathering information "to determine her focus and plans as public editor".
The current "reader response editor" position, which is the person who now manages complaints, corrections and responses to the Press Council, established in 2007, will continue to exist and will report to the public editor.
Silverman pointed out the fact that Stead will also report to the editor-in-chief as she will have a "dotted-line responsibility to the publisher". This is a departure from what traditionally happens, said Silverman, who is supported by Jeffrey Dvorkin, Executive Director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and former NPR ombudsman, who is quoted in the article. It's rare for a public editor to report to the editor-in-chief, Silverman commented.
The effectiveness of the ombudsman position requires that the ombudsman have real and effective power of action, resulting notably in his or her complete independence.
"The first essential quality that the ombudsman needs to have is independence. He/she needs to absolutely define himself/herself as an independent agent for the public", Jeffrey Dvorkin said to WAN-IFRA in an interview published in the Trends in Newsroom 2011 report.
This independence has to be on a two levels, Dvorkin continued: it involves the freedom to investigate and report within the newsroom and within the management.
Debates recently arose about whether state regulation, rather than a self-regulated approach, would be more successful on stemming the tide of lost credibility that the press is experiencing on the wave of the UK phone-hacking scandal.
As our sister publication SFN Blog recently analyzed, a third way has been considered. UK culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt has in fact suggested the creation of an independent regulatory body with strong powers of action. The body would enhance the current Press Complaint Commission which has proven to be somewhat ineffective.
Some blamed the fact that membership of the PCC is voluntary as a reason for its weakness.
The PCC greatest sanction is a critical adjudication which relies on a moral sanction.
A voluntary basis for membership perhaps will not work on a higher level which involves the whole country's newspaper industry but it has a fundamental role to play in a paper's decision to create a position which implies willingness to show readers the paper's commitment to transparency. It's a message to the reader community and a commitment to more rigorous standards.
Sources: Poynter, SFN Blog, Trends in Newsroom 2011