Fried Okrent

My primary newspaper is the New York Times. I feel like I should be morally obligated to read five or so newspapers every morning: the Times, the Washington Post, one or both of the major NYC tabloids, those free papers they’ve started handing out on the subway, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. Which is an important paper, even if it’s easy to make fun of.

Today marks the return of Daniel Okrent, the Times’s Public Editor. In that same ethics panel I mentioned yesterday, Al Siegal (and I’m going to fudge the quote here again), was asked why the Times didn’t call the position an ombudsman.

“Two reasons,” he said. “One is that the Washington Post’s Mike Getler so fully emodies the term.” He said it wasn’t quite a copyright that the Post had on ombudsmen, but he didn’t want to compete. The other reason made a little bit more sense to me. An ombudsman, Siegal said, had two primary respoonsibilities: writing a weekly column, and circulating a memo to the Post’s staff about standards and practices. The Public Editor only writes the column (and it’s fortnightly).

Here’s what Okrent said he’s going to be watching in the last nine months of his term:

“The list is long – corrections policy, book reviewing, the use of “experts,” loaded language, Middle East coverage, honesty in photographs, what the editors mean by “news analysis” (not to mention “White House Letter,” “Political Memo” and various other ways they say “not a news story”).”

Siegal and Okrent were both results of the Blair affair, so I’ll use one to answer the other on the first point. Siegel said that reporters will often come to him with a new piece of information about a published story and ask him “Is this worth a correction?” He says he responds by asking the reporters if they would write the story the same way today knowing what they know. The answer is always yes, and his advice is always to run a correction. Now whether that is policy or just a public stance, I don’t know.

I’m particularly interested to see what comes out of his book review investigation, the language thing, and honesty in photographs–this last one because I’m teaching a freshman liberal arts cluster on ethics and journalism, and one of the courses I’m working with is a photojournalism course. And I’m always very interested in the creeping of opinion and analysis onto the front page, which is the last thing Okrent mentions. I have my own thoughts on whether this is a good or a bad thing.

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