A Note from the Ombudsman: A New Era

Sarah Devendorf, Standards and Practices Editor

Editor’s note: The ombudsman is an independent position within the paper that oversees standards and ethics of news coverage. Email Sarah at sldevendorf@wm.edu or Flathat.ombuds@gmail.com or submit a formal comment or complaint here.

The author’s views are their own.

New school year, new Flat Hat office, new ombudsman. Or shall I say ombudswoman?

Hey y’all, my name is Sarah Devendorf, and I have been working as the Standards and Practices Editor or Ombudsman of The Flat Hat since January 2022. I figured the commencement of the new school year would be as good a time as any to both introduce myself to The Flat Hat’s readers and re-introduce the role of the ombudsman to new and old readers alike.

Last semester, we bid farewell to The Flat Hat’s first ever ombudsman, Matt Lowrie. I thank him greatly for his dedication to the office over the past year (and for teaching me everything I know about being an ombudsman). The Office of the Ombudsman will face new challenges, goals and opportunities this semester. With this initial note, I hope to provide transparency about the themes on which we intend to write and the efforts we can undertake to make The Flat Hat a more ethical journalistic organization.

I’ve had a whole summer to ponder over how I want to make this role my own and still bring integrity to the Office of the Ombudsman; honestly, I don’t know how far I’ve gotten. I’ll be the first to say that I may be a more off-beat choice for the ombudsman. The last time I stretched my journalism “skill” was for my middle school student paper, where I primarily reported on pop culture and music. But since then, I have grown enthralled with politics, checks and balances and this idea of integrity. On top of that, like the true twamp I am, I have read a lot of news, and there is a lot I want to bring to this role and The Flat Hat as a whole. So, consider this note a wishlist of the things I hope to accomplish this semester and all the waters I wish to dip my toe into. This note and the ones that succeed it can be records of my thoughts at one time or another.

These notes will be my thoughts on the paper, how to improve it, re-organize it and contribute to it, as well as my thoughts on journalism: the good, the bad and the ugly. And trust me, there is ugly. On top of these occasional notes and check-ins, I’ll pop into the paper here and there in the form of corrections, statements, etc.

I’ll be the first to say, The Flat Hat makes mistakes. It comes with the territory of collegiate journalism. This is especially true of journalism at the College, where the staff is unpaid and without a school-run journalism program. That’s why my predecessor, Matt Lowrie, established the position just last year to exist as a check on our writers while addressing the public’s concerns. The purpose of the ombudsman is to operate as a separate entity from the institution it assesses so that they can accurately investigate complaints and institute corrections when necessary. These corrections will both be internal and public. Keep in mind that ombudsman offices can be found working alongside government and business institutions, not just publications. The actions that the Office of the Ombudsman takes will sometimes be a critique of The Flat Hat itself. This office will never operate as a spokesperson for the paper or an HR department. So I welcome criticism from the public so that the paper can be held accountable and improve over time. That being said, the Office also has the authority to defend the paper’s writers in the face of public backlash if deemed necessary after investigation. The overall goal of the Ombudsman’s office is to create an environment of ethical journalism. Point blank, period.

So what’s new? How have I utilized the power of the office outside of the standard comments and corrections?

  1. The Flat Hat has introduced a fact-checking team to the paper called the “Fact-Checkers.” This group is the brainchild of Lulu Dawes ’23, Emma Henry ’25 and myself. The purpose of the fact-checking group is to review every article and assess its accuracy before it goes to Copy for editing. The fact-checkers look at dates, names and other details and research if the information in the article is presented accurately. Was the score of the club hockey game legit? Was this person’s name spelled correctly? Is their major accurate? This group was created to improve our publication’s journalistic integrity and promote ethical practices.
  2. A goal of mine has been to promote ombudsman visibility and involvement in the intern program. This program allows students who want to get involved with The Flat Hat to be trained as writers, photographers, digital creators and more. This past summer, I assisted Alexandra Byrne ’23, Veronica Bondi ’25 and Dawes in creating the bones of an intern program for the upcoming semester. This intern program will have journalistic ethics as a cornerstone of its information and training sessions. I will make it a priority to be visible in the intern program and to let incomers know that The Flat Hat does, in fact, have an ombudsman. Also, there is work to be done in the Office of the Ombudsman if they want to join the team!

So that’s all I have for you today! Be prepared to see me pop in from time to time with updates on all things journalism. And if you have any questions, comments or concerns, please feel free to reach out. Get excited for what The Flat Hat has in store this semester!

Thank you for listening to my rambling,

Sarah Devendorf, Standards and Practices Editor


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