One thing Al Jazeera could do to gain credibility: hire an ombudsman

Who keeps watch on the watchdog?
Who keeps watch on the watchdog?
Image: Reuters/Fadi Al-Assaad
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DOHA, Qatar—Neither Al Jazeera English nor the Arabic network have a full-time ombudsperson, such as the CBC’s standards editor or the New York Times’s public editor Margaret Sullivan. For its part, Al Jazeera America has made copious public announcements about glitzy hires but has hired no full-time audience advocate.

Al Jazeera America needn’t feel sheepish; Fox and MSNBC have no ombuds listed among their editorial staffs, and neither responded to calls and emails as of this writing.

Al Jazeera America, which launches tomorrow in the US market after its purchase of Current TV, wants to be different from American cables, and hiring a standards editor is one way to do so. The network has wrangled publicly about how to strengthen the credibility of its venture, and a vocal, independent ombud could help.

There’s a plausible relationship between having an ombud and audience size, at least for newspapers, Philip Meyer wrote in The Vanishing Newspaper. News outlets with ombuds are held more accountable, and perhaps generate more public trust, yet news outlets with money to begin with are those that can afford ombuds. Still, ombuds can be worth it even when a news organization is thin on cash; both the Guardian and its Sunday Observer have “readers’ editors.”

And Al Jazeera has no money problem.

In 2013, an ombudsperson is someone who responds to reader feedback and concerns via social media and email, and typically writes at least one weekly column on the news outlet’s performance as well as multiple blog posts. Many malnourished newsrooms in the US have cut such positions, including the Washington Post earlier this year.

The irony of a news organization avoiding the extra oversight when it has the money, though, is that ombuds frequently defend an organization’s actions when the public is wrong about a hard, but right, decision the organization had to make (such as when some US newspapers chose to publish gruesome photos of Saddam Hussein’s dead sons). These reader representatives also commend reporters for exceptional storytelling, often in dangerous places with few or no other journalists around, something Al Jazeera reporters do regularly.

Newcomer online news organizations or those deeply in the red can be forgiven for not having an ombudsperson, but Al Jazeera is one of the largest, richest news organizations in the world. Like any large news outfit, the Qatar government-funded Al Jazeera sometimes makes mistakes that wound its credibility. In May, for example, Al Jazeera English published a controversial article by Columbia University professor Joseph Massad—one that generated pro-Israel griping—and then deleted it without saying a word six days later.

“No media outlet can possibly do something like this without publicly accounting for what happened and expect to retain credibility,” wrote the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald in a long excoriation. An independent ombud would be all over this botch, but Al Jazeera English, one of the largest English news organizations in the world, has no ombud, so Greenwald did the work for them.

Al Jazeera English eventually resurrected the article, as well as ran a tortuous editor’s note saying essentially we could have done better on this one, but we’re still really good. A note addressing the article’s deletion (unlike the euphemism “temporary removal,” as the Al Jazeera editor called it) from an ombud would be blunt and apologetic without caveats. The reclaimed article says, “Last modified: 21 May, 2013,” with no mention on the page of censorship. A good ombud won’t abide this disingenuousness.

When a Qatari poet was sentenced to life in prison in November, Al Jazeera English’s website made no mention of the story for days, as the poet’s misery was swiftly reported by major news organizations around the world.

I personally contacted the managing director of Al Jazeera English to ask why the poet story had been ignored. To his credit, he quickly contacted the news desk, but unfortunately, the desk did little more than bury an AP blurb of the poet’s fate deep in Al Jazeera’s site. When the poet’s sentence was reduced from life to 15 years, however, Al Jazeera’s coverage had far greater depth, and it was original news-gathering, unlike the AP plop.

In July, Al Jazeera was globally criticized for its abysmal (some say negligent) coverage of the military coup in Egypt. Qatar backs the Muslim Brotherhood, and as central Cairo teemed with anti-Morsi protesters, and reports of tanks rolling into Tahrir mushroomed, Al Jazeera English was showing viewers a documentary of illegal immigrants in America, according to Alicia Wittmeyer in Foreign Policy.

These proclivities won’t pass in the US. Al Jazeera America will have at least 12 bureaus across the country, including in Detroit, New Orleans, and Dallas. Folks in these cities are no-nonsense people. When Al Jazeera inevitably gets a story wrong about these communities, Texans and Louisianans will want straight answers—not public relations.

Major news organizations inevitably make huge mistakes. NBC doctored the 911 tape recorded after George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death in Florida, to tell a different story. After Bashar Al Assad started slaughtering Syrians on a level the West cared about, Vogue simply deleted a fawning profile of Assad’s glamorous wife it had previously published. The Atlantic ran an ad for Scientology that looked too much like news, and removed the promotion after public outcry. CNN fumbles big stories like the Obamacare verdict and the Boston Marathon bomber arrest because it’s at times a child impatient for a correct answer.

All were publicly shamed and later apologized, with the exception of Vogue (which was roundly shamed but unabashed).

Americans are demanding news consumers, and public trust of US Journalism has been in decline for years, as has trust in other institutions like Congress and courts. Americans will contact the local newspaper if their middle initial was left out of a story, demand and expect a prompt correction, and get one. Should Al Jazeera America commit just one or two incidents of ignoring or killing a story because doing so serves obvious Qatari interests, the network will have an existential problem far worse than the branding issue it faces now.

Ombudsman is a quirky Scandinavian word, but whether the position is called “standards editor,” “audience advocate,” or something else, Al Jazeera America needs one. The network should consider hiring a full-time editor known for journalism ethics to walk the American public through its mistakes, triumphs, and tough decisions.