In 1967, the Louisville Courier and Louisville Journal announced the creation of a new role previously unseen in American news organizations: the news ombudsman. The role was to champion principles of ethics, accountability and public transparency. Since then, major news organizations across the country — from The Washington Post and The New York Times to NPR, PBS and even ESPN — have at one point embraced these ideals in the form of an ombudsman.
However, beginning in the early 2000s, with readership declining, revenues redlining and an increasingly vocal internet audience, news organizations saw the ombudsman role as a relic of the past. The people could police the newspapers and the papers no longer had to pay someone to do it. Papers small and large began sacking their ombudsman until eventually, of the major national newsrooms, only NPR remained. In what can now be described as the great ombudsman “I told you so” moment, public opinion polls have placed faith in the media at all-time lows, with almost 60% of Americans displaying little to no trust in mainstream media in 2020.
While not a national news organization by any stretch of the imagination, The Flat Hat must abide by the same principles that govern the Posts and Times of the world (both of whom, ironically, have cut their ombudsman roles). When you make a mistake, you must be held accountable. You must own up to it, say you’re wrong and work to correct the problem. That is the role of the newly created Office of the Ombudsman and my role as standards and practices editor. While some organizations differentiate between ombudsman, standards and practices and fact-checker, that will not be the case at The Flat Hat.
Accountability, transparency, ethics, fairness and accuracy will be the guiding principles and philosophies of this organization moving forward. This is not to say that they have not been in the past. It is to say, however, that with the implementation of this independent office, questions and issues surrounding these principles will be investigated and reported in a certain and fair manner. In following with these principles, I would like to applaud the move that former Editor-in-Chief Ethan Brown ’21 made in spearheading an internal staff diversity report and opinions publishing philosophy. The readers must know the who, what, why and how of publishing if they are to trust what they read.
Much in the same way The Flat Hat has a copy editing team that checks for clarity and grammar, the Office of the Ombudsman will check for accuracy and ethics. The scope of the office lies only in what is published online or in print. Issues regarding what is not published should be taken up with the respective section editor. This office acts as a conduit between the readers and the newsroom. Any friction between these two entities is something to be immediately and decisively addressed.
If you want a more in-depth look at the official duties and responsibilities of the Office of the Ombudsman, we have published the contract between myself and The Flat Hat online. If you have any questions, complaints, or otherwise points to make please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, I have created an online complaint form. I encourage you, the reader and staff, to use this liberally and without hesitation.