Every week we have a column to write. The subjects vary but are usually within the confines of journalism, its theory and practice. We have said many times to our fellow journalists to report on the news rather than being the news. But one of my friends asked me if by writing about journalism, our newspaper and its contents, we are breaking that rule. That may be up for debate, but in that broad perspective, that is the definition of the duties of a newspaper's ombudsman. We may not be the news in a personal meaning, but we are indeed focused on ourselves as journalists and journalism itself.
Let us take a look at the birth of the ombudsman and the reasons behind forming such a unique profession. If we look at it without limiting it to journalism, we see ombudsmen as far back in history as the 16th century. For example, King Charles XII of Sweden enacted a law and formed an office called the King's Highest Ombudsman because he was mostly away at war during his reign. Many similar concepts can be found in other countries, and their job definitions varied, but the idea was the same. As for the history of the news ombudsmen, its inception was a bit nearer in history, in 1967. There is a controversy to it, but bear with me for a moment. For years it appeared that the first news ombudsman was installed by The Courier-Journal, a newspaper based in Louisville, Kentucky. That placed the birth of our profession in North America for a time, but Japan disputed this and said that they were the first to install a news ombudsman. Debate lasted for years, but after several documents surfaced in 1999 and were sent to The Courier-Journal and Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), it appeared that the Japanese academics were right. The ombudsman for The Courier-Journal, Linda Raymond, published a column titled "We were wrong." Here is a quote from that article:
"For 32 years, The Courier-Journal has taken pride in the belief that it appointed the first newspaper ombudsman and launched the international newspaper ombudsman movement. We were wrong. We didn't know that the concept had already been operating for many years in Japan when, in 1967, C-J editor and publisher Barry Bingham Sr. established the post here and John Herchenroeder became the first to fill it. … So we all violated a cardinal rule of journalism: Don't assume anything."
So according to research by Osami Okuya from the Ombudsmen Committee of the Yomiuri, the concept of a news ombudsman first appeared in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in 1922, saying that the position was created to "improve the quality of our newspaper."
For more on the subject and the debate surrounding it, you might take a look at the Nov. 23, 1999 article by Takeshi Maezawa from Tokyo Keizai University.
I would like to point out something here. As Raymond published an article admitting their mistake earnestly and strengthening the ties between news ombudsmen around the globe, she also helped to show that despite the fact that we work for different newspapers and maintain a different range of responsibilities, our goals are the same. We all serve to maintain and improve journalism as well as protect ethics so that we continue to hold public trust and inform them accordingly. This is only possible by a high level of cooperation. A lesson we all must learn instead of taking sides and hastening deterioration in the profession.