NPR Backs Off Planned “Downgrade” Of Ombudsman

UPDATE: NPR has updated the job listing to remove the references to its ombudsman not passing judgment or proving commentary.

National Public Radio is backing away from a revised job description for its ombudsman that suggested the person in the position should avoid “passing judgment” on any errors in NPR News coverage, calling that listing “a mistake.” 

Earlier this week, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen highlighted a job listing for the NPR ombudsman/public editor position, which has historically reviewed and critiqued NPR's reporting. The listing asserted the role did not include “passing judgment” or providing “commentary.” 

In one section it stated, “The NPR Ombudsman/Public Editor focuses on fact gathering and explanation, not commentary or judgment.” Another section added, “In addressing audience complaints about journalistic errors in NPR News coverage, the Ombudsman/Public Editor will gather facts and can interview key news managers. The Ombudsman/Public Editor will then explain any errors without passing judgment.”

Citing the concerns of two former NPR ombudsmen, Rosen declared that the outlet had “downgraded the ombudsman position.” 

Following the criticism, NPR CEO Jarl Mohn issued a statement to Media Matters calling the language a “mistake”: 

The Ombudsman is a critically important role at NPR and the expectations of the job have not changed. The Ombudsman must be fully independent and fully transparent in order to do their job on behalf of the public.  The language in the current job description about not providing commentary or passing judgment is a mistake and we are removing it. I take this position very seriously and am committed to recruiting an outstanding journalist for the job and ensuring he or she has the resources required.

Several NPR member stations had expressed concerns to Media Matters about the apparent reduction in the power of the ombudsman. 

William J. Marrazzo, president and CEO of Philadelphia Public Radio, called the traditional ombudsman position “an important resource.”

“I think it needs to have judgment,” he told Media Matters. “What holds public media, with all due respect, above the rest is the integrity of our content. It is factually based without judgment or commentary, it is useful to have somewhere in the system an entity that is maintaining those standards on a black and white basis.”

Scott Hanley, general manager of WBHM Public Radio in Birmingham, AL, and a former NPR board member, said the ombudsman helps with much-needed transparency.

“The ombudsman position is intended to help NPR be transparent in its news function and that we are fairly judging the journalism that the company is producing,” he said. “The transparency of the position is something we have really appreciated. The way the job description was written seemed to be a bit unusual. I think it's important to make sure that the spirit of transparency and the willingness to have judgment and criticize is respected.”

Ellen Rocco, station manager at North Country Public Radio in Canton, N.Y., and a former NPR board member, said the fact that the description twice invoked restricting the ombudsman's judgment raised concerns.

“They never had [judgment restriction] before and they made a point, they used that phrase twice, they did it twice, you don't use a phrase like that twice unless you want to be sure to drive that point home and that's what worried me,” she said. “And that's what is worrying a number of my colleagues in the system ... trust is NPR's calling card, absolutely what we care about more than anything else and you cannot have trust without transparency and part of transparency in the case of an ombudsman is the right to say what they in good faith come to a conclusion doing an impartial analysis of the work being done by NPR. I want that, who wouldn't want that, we all want to be better, we want to do the job righter and righter.”

Hawk Mendenhall, director of broadcast and content at KUT Public Radio in Austin, TX, said the ombudsman's review and critique is vital.

“I'm always in favor of an ombudsman that actually has some power and their job would have some teeth,” he said. “I think NPR has had some really good ombudsman. I am concerned that the former ombudsmen are so concerned. I think they know the job better than anyone else.”

The new description became public during NPR's search for a new ombudsman to replace Edward Schumacher-Matos, who will leave the post at the end of July when his three-year term ends.