Meeting recap: Speaking her mind

Deborah Howell, Ombudsman for the Washington Post, explains how she handles reader complaints.

by Christopher M. Wright

"You're never going to get it a hundred percent right. Nobody gets it right all the time," Deborah Howell, ombudsman for the Washington Post, told the audience at the ASBPE Washington, D.C., chapter regional awards banquet on July 13, 2006.

The event was sponsored by the Institute on Political Journalism, which has been bringing undergraduate journalism students to the nation's capital for intensive internships every summer for the past two decades. Students attend classes and receive professional hands-on training at major news organizations such as Business Week, CBS News, and The Chicago Tribune, as well as business publications including The Bureau of National Affairs Inc.

As ombudsman, Howell addresses reader complaints regarding biased reporting, misrepresentations, and factual errors.

"My job is to be an Inspector General," Howell said. Some complaints are valid, some are not. With her judgment informed by a long career as a reporter, she calls them as she sees them, which sometimes puts her in the position of telling Post reporters and editors that "large hunks" of their stories are completely wrong. "Have I met some resentment? Yes, and all ombudsmen I think do," she said.

One editor refers to her as his "very own special prosecutor." Still, most staffers are open to hearing what she has to say, she said.

Many of the complaints she receives are about politics -- liberals and conservatives both thinking the Post is in the other's camp, for example. "It's just a given, that they see things in a story that are not there," she said. Other complaints run the gamut, from Middle East coverage to the use of foreign phrases. Not all complaints are political.

Some readers were steamed that a Post fashion writer revealed part of the ending of the TV reality show Project Runway. In that instance, she came down on the side of the readers. "People hate that. They do not want to know. ... I don't blame them, really," she said.

However, "if I think the complaint is baseless, I'll say so," she said. She routinely tells readers to go see the editor about the general angle of Post coverage or provocative opinions on the editorial page. "[D.C. Mayor] Tony Williams' press secretary has wanted to meet with me 20 times because he doesn't like the way Tony Williams is covered in the Post. ... That's just not my job," she said.

If she does find a journalistic problem, she handles it internally or writes about it in her regular column in the newspaper. In one column, she criticized Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) for the way he handled his involvement in the Valerie Plame CIA outing affair. "I wrote a column that was, 'Bob, you don't do that,'" she said.

Pursuing something internally first means engaging relevant staffers in an informal off-the-record conversation to make them feel comfortable. Then she invites them to be quoted in her column if the situation warrants "That usually works very well," she said. Depending on the circumstances, some matters are handled confidentially, "If I'm going to have a really tough talk with somebody, I do not do it for the whole world to see," she said. "That's something I do behind closed doors."

If staff is uncooperative, she takes another tack. On a military recruiting story, "the reporter and the editor blew me off. So I re-reported the story on my own," she said.

Sometimes complaints come from inside the paper as, for example, when some staff thought the Post had underplayed the al-Zarqawi story. She will take valid complaints from staff to the appropriate editor. However, she said, "if I think it's not a legitimate complaint, I will give them the old, 'Sweetheart, I've been in this business a lot longer [than you] and I gotta tell ya ...'" She also writes a weekly internal newsletter to staff, and is sure to include compliments from readers about what the Post is doing right.

Howell doesn't always get it right herself. She talked about her own column in which she mistakenly stated that lobbying scandal figure Jack Abramoff had personally given money to both parties. "They had to shut down the Post website because the comments were nothing like I've ever seen in my life," she said. "They were so obscene, sexist, I was just floored. ... The venom out there was much greater than anything I had ever experienced in my 40 years in journalism." Post chairman Don Graham jokingly told her he might have to hang her in front of the building. "It was quite an education for me," she said, coming away with a renewed appreciation about the importance of being precise.

In her own flap, she publicly confessed error, something she said should be routine in any journalistic enterprise. The Post runs factual corrections on page two in every issue.

But she expressed admiration for journalists who go a step beyond. "I love [columnist] David Broder's end-of-the-year column," she said, "which is always the same thing: 'Here are the biggest mistakes I made in this past year' -- and he lists them, how he made them, and apologizes. That is class."

Mr. Wright is a D.C. ASBPE Board Member and freelance writer specializing in business and technology topics for national and international clients. []

ASBPE Central-Southeast Region Award Winners

On July 13, business editors, art directors, and others gathered for our annual award ceremony at the Tabard Inn and heard from the ombudsman for The Washington Post, Deborah Howell. Howell discussed the current ethical issues confronting journalists and the crucial role that she believes that the press plays in ensuring democracy.

Attendees mingled over cocktails and dinner in a formal, but relaxed setting, and got a look at the winning work from trade and business publications from the Central-Southeast region. That region includes publications based in:
  • the District of Columbia,
  • Florida,
  • Georgia,
  • Maryland,
  • North Carolina,
  • Ohio,
  • South Carolina,
  • Virginia, and
  • West Virginia.
Here is the list of the winners.