When The Los Angeles Times published a front-page photo on May 17 of a Colombian mother with a bomb around her neck, it drew fire from readers. How could the Times print such a shocking photo of a woman waiting to die from the device forced on her by guerrillas?
The answer came in a column written by readers' representative Narda Zacchino, who has been fielding calls and demystifying newspaper practices - like the choosing of Page 1 photos -since her position was created last year.
At a time when the public is increasingly skeptical about media credibility, more news outlets are improving communication with their audiences and owning up to their mistakes through people designated to deal with them.
Readers find an impartial ally in the newsroom
Although in the US the number of news ombudsmen -a Scandinavian word for someone who handles complaints -remains small, the ranks have grown in recent years.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Miami Herald created such positions, with at least 10 more added in the last 12 months in cities like Honolulu; Akron, Ohio; White Plains, N.Y.; and at National Public Radio. Several have been added overseas as well, including at The Guardian in London (see story, right).
"An increasing number of editors and publishers are seeing the wisdom of it," says Arthur Nauman, who spent 17 years in the position at the Sacramento Bee. "We aren't the end all and be all, [but we are] one way to create and enhance and maintain credibility."
Organizations are signing on for reasons ranging from fatter budgets to wanting to better serve diverse and growing communities, as in Miami and at NPR.
"This is the right thing for NPR," says president and CEO Kevin Klose. "When you gain a national audience, how does someone sitting far from Washington, D.C., [NPR's home] figure out who to call?"
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