A Breach of Ethics? Part Two: The Ombudsman

Blogger’s note: I would recommend reading the post “A Breach of Ethics” which immediately precedes this post before gong any further if you are unfamiliar with the underlying story. That post provides the relevant factual and opinion background necessary to fully appreciate the rest of this post.

Generally an ombudsman (henceforth “OBM”) is a quasi-independent person who is charged by an organization with keeping that organization in line by listening to the public and investigating complaints. Typically the organization receives complaints about a product or service and the OBM investigates the validity of the complaints and then goes on the record by explaining to the public what, if anything, went wrong within the organization and what the organization intends to do about it.

Jack Lessenberry is the OBM of The Toledo Blade newspaper and he recently investigated the complaints the newspaper received regarding the publication of news story involving a Facebook post by a woman that accuses a former mayor and current mayoral candidate of inappropriate physical contact and verbal sexual harassment. Having completed his investigation, Lessenberry weighed in with a column in the Sunday edition of the newspaper.

The overall theme of his answer to the public about the reporting that took place and the editorial decision to run the story where it did was that there were some mistakes made, but that publishing the report was not among them.

In the aftermath of the original report, the Blade has published a single letter to the editor from readers, to which OBM refers in his response, but I have to believe that there were many that went unpublished. Further the Blade published essentially nothing in the way of follow-up to the report until this response of OBM yesterday.

I am less than satisfied with the OBM response and I will tell you why with a few examples. The blockquotes come from the column.

First of all — I do think The Blade made a number of questionable decisions in the way this story was handled. Not in the writing of the story itself. In fact, I thought the story that did appear was essentially balanced. It included Allison Dow’s allegations against the former mayor — but then made it clear that there are reasons to suspect a possible political motive for her charges.

An unsubstantiated allegation made by one with questionable motive is not my idea of essentially balanced. To me, a layman, this is precisely what gets discussed in the newsroom prior to running a story. If the answer is we cannot substantiate her claim then we don’t publish until we can, or until she orr someone else files charges.

… readers believe that given that this is indeed just an unsubstantiated accusation, this story should not have been written at all. And in 1990, it probably wouldn’t have been.

But what many of these critics are missing is that this is a different, multimedia world, and these accusations were out there and were certain to be talked about by the vast majority of Internet-savvy Toledoans. Modern newspapers cannot ignore other media, or what the buzz is on the Internet, and be taken seriously.

No one is suggesting that newspapers ignore Facebook or other social networks, but the potential for prevarication remains. Given his own admission that the woman in this story may have suspicious motivation, The Blade had an ethical duty to investigate before reporting. The newspaper breached that duty.

…in a way, The Blade may have done him a service. Had this story not been written, the rumor mill would have taken it as gospel that he’d hit on a young woman less than half his age in a bar.

I would like Mr. Lessenberry to explain the difference between the “rumor mill” and Facebook. I suggest that the rumor mill has been, if not replaced, certainly supplemented by Facebook. I understand that part of an OBM’s duty is to explain to the public why the organization did what it did, if that organization is called into question. On it’s face, this statement is obfuscating. OBM is suggesting that The Blade was right to publish this report because, if the report was left unpublished, then the public would be left to decide for itself how to interpret one woman’s post on Facebook. What OBM fails to acknowledge is that the overwhelming majority of the public would never even see that post. By using the Facebook post as the basis of the news report, The Blade not only gave credence to the allegations contained therein, but also, and far more importantly to me, made sure that many, many more people would be aware of those very same unsubstantiated allegations.

Where I think The Blade went wrong was in putting the story on the front page on the print edition, which inflated its importance.

This is a cop-out. Here OBM is acting like a home inspector or a dentist. He’s hired to look for problems so people will think he’s not doing his job if he doesn’t at least come up with something. No, no. This is a whole package. If it was a mistake to put it on the front page above the fold, then it was a mistake to publish in the first place. The story was intended for the front page at its inception and the headline was intended to inflame interest. The Blade assigned two veteran reporters to the story whose bylines were there to add authenticity to the contents of the report. Well, that is until these two reporters lent their names to this ethical disaster.

OBM offered a few quotes from the paper’s managing editor, David Murray, who is the guy who decided to investigate and then print this report. Murray says,

“The story would not have been a story if Mike Bell wasn’t running for mayor. But Mr. Bell is running for the city’s highest elected office, and the woman who accused him of inappropriately touching her was a well-known political activist in this city.”

I think most of us appreciate who the characters in the story are, and we all suspect that Mr. Bell’s declaration for mayor in the day or two prior to this report was a large motivating factor in The Blade’s decision to report this allegation. Whether the story would have been published absent that declaration is anybody’s guess. Murray says he wouldn’t publish and so I guess we have to take his word for it. But here’s the kicker. Doesn’t a newspaper have a duty to make sure that what it is reporting is factual, especially if by its own admission says that the reason for publishing the report is the status of the characters in the report?

Murray explains further,

“The Blade did not report from Facebook, as many have charged, but wrote this story after interviewing the woman, Mr. Bell, the bar owner, and other patrons of the bar. There were a variety of opinions about what happened that night, and The Blade reported them all.”

Fact is The Blade report first cites Facebook and then reveals the interviews of those he mentioned none of whom, other than the claimant, offered a shred of substantiation beyond the fact that Mr. Bell was in the bar and socializing. As I mentioned in my previous post, there is far more evidence that Mr. Bell behaved appropriately that evening, but that wouldn’t make a very compelling story.

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