First Amendment: Citizens charged with role as ‘watchdog on news media’
Who holds the news media accountable? We all do. Given that the First Amendment precludes the government from being an actual “watchdog on news media,” who else steps in to call the news media to account?
In today’s world, increasingly it is citizen critics or organizations outside of mainstream journalism, empowered by the web’s ability for two-way conversations and comments, and by independence from past restraints of expensive printing presses and broadcast machinery.
Free-standing journalism reviews at one time also helped fill the role, but their numbers are down. The idea of press councils to review and judge press performance still exists, though the real numbers are miniscule.
But there’s one more approach, present in about 25 news organizations: An in-house public critic, the ombudsman. In various ways and formats, those ombudsmen — down from 40 such positions just a few years ago — tackle complaints, evaluate newsgathering and arbitrate claims of misreporting, distortion and even the absence of coverage.
Sometimes called “reader advocate” or “public editor,” the idea of an on-the-payroll, independent reviewer is a relatively new concept in the United States — about a half-century in its current form.
Their very-public presence means correcting faults in public. Whistleblowers exist in many kinds of businesses, but rarely are they paid to operate in plain view from the start — which can result in some very-public spats.
Case in point: The current flap inside National Public Radio over a 2011 report critical of South Dakota’s state-funded efforts that relocated what the report said was a surprisingly high number of Native American children into foster care. NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos spent more than a year checking the report and found that it was “fundamentally flawed,” according to a story posted on NPR’s online news site.
The original NPR report said state authorities appeared to disregard the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which favors placing Native American children with relatives or other Native American families before other options — and may have done so because of cultural bias and to gain increased federal aid to support such placements, involving as much as $100 million. Read more in PantaGraph.com.