Ombudsman provides important perspective

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While you may have heard about Juan Williams’ recent comments on Fox News and subsequent firing from his position at National Public Radio (NPR), a name you may not recognize is Alicia Shepard. Shepard is the NPR ombudsman, described by NPR as “the public’s representative, ... an independent source regarding NPR’s programming.”

It is Shepard’s job to review the 6,800 comments on the story. It is her job to review the 8,000 e-mails that crashed the NPR contact form. In Shepard’s post on the topic, she summarizes: “The overwhelming majority are angry, furious, outraged. They want NPR to hire him back immediately.... They are as mad as hell, and want everyone to know it.”

It is Shepard’s job to respond, and her response was fair, calm, and well-considered. She contends that this is not about race, nor free speech — it is about Williams overstepping the bounds of being a news reporter or even analyst, and taking a very vocal, very personally charged stance on a controversial issue. At NPR, this goes against its journalistic values; Fox News gave Williams a raise.

But I want to focus not on the issues surrounding his firing (and improved salary) but the response. Shepard’s role as ombudsman is to understand controversy from both inside and out. She is not an NPR reporter; she is an independent actor who has worked with NPR to understand its decision-making processes so that they can be explained to an outraged public.

But by no means was this week indicative of Shepard’s normal role at NPR. She said there has been no event in the last three years that comes near to matching the amount of traffic this incident has generated.

But this is why the role of ombudsman is important for journalistic organizations. While over the past three years Shepard has received only minor complaints, she has built up trust from the community, and now that a real issue has arisen people are calling and e-mailing, and are clearly not afraid to express their feelings. And it is her response that people can turn to in order to understand why NPR has fired Williams after 10 years.

And this is why we at The Tartan should also have an ombudsman — a person trusted in the community to understand how The Tartan operates, but also independent enough to listen to and be trusted by the administration, the students, fraternities and sororities, faculty and staff, student government, local media, and everyone who believes The Tartan should continue to grow as a strong news source.