An analysis of The Tartan from its last ombudsman

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Last Tuesday, April 19, the Tartan Editorial Staff voted 23–0, with two abstentions, to pass substantial constitutional reform, including the removal of the position of ombudsman from the governing documents. This means that as of Aug. 1, when the changes take effect, the position I am currently serving will be terminated — removed after seven years. They can be best categorized as seven years of neglect, underutilization, and a lack of trust.

The role of the ombudsman is one historically linked to governments (originally Scandinavian). The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in part as: “A person appointed to investigate complaints against maladministration by a particular category of organization or in a particular area of public life, such as local authorities, hospitals, or pensions.” But over the last 100 years, the concept has been applied largely to news organizations. The Organization of News Ombudsmen states that an ombudsman at a media organization “receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio and television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance, and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports.”

When described in this manner, I believe we have seen an absolute need for an ombudsman to serve The Tartan (and the other media organizations on campus). Complaints about the accuracy, balance, and taste of The Tartan pervade the campus community. Instead of being reported to a central source where they can be understood, responded to, and addressed, they echo in hallways, apartments, and offices without resolution.

Only once in recent history did community complaints escalate to a point where the administration stepped in to address them: Following the publication of the 2004 edition of The Natrat, the annual April Fools issue. The Presidential Commission created to address the issue summarized by saying, “This publication received immediate community attention (and, eventually, that of local, national, and international media) ... focused on a cartoon that included the use of a racial epithet in a violent context; a misogynist image of a woman’s genitals being penetrated by an ice skate (superimposed by two poems that focused on rape and sexual violence); and a homophobic essay that associated lesbians with bestiality.”

While this example is an extreme case, and while action has been taken to ensure that this is unlikely to ever occur again, the processes, training, and policies of The Tartan that the Presidential Commission identified as leading up to the 2004 Natrat publication remain largely unchanged. The report lists 16 recommendations for improvement, of which only four have been successfully achieved (2, 9, 14, and 15).

In addition, the Commission’s report also called upon the university to respect diversity and support our internal institutions. The Tartan has had continued problems reaching out to a handful of administrative departments and areas that are more interested in covering themselves than allowing information of certain events to be made public. The community should be as angry with these departments’ closed nature as they are with The Tartan’s inability to cover certain incidents.

Ongoing issues:

My own, and final, report on the current issues plaguing The Tartan’s success as a university newspaper includes many concerns echoed from that report written seven years ago.
Issues with staff continue to limit the size, coverage, and quality of the news and editorial content of The Tartan. The content, layout, and editorial staff are largely untrained, entirely volunteer, and consistently smaller than they should be compared to the size of the paper they create. While many of these issues could be directly resolved if Carnegie Mellon had a journalism school, other university newspapers without a supporting academic program produce strong, original, widely read content, and this absence is simply not an excuse.

Editors remain overworked, focusing less on editorial vision and assigning compelling content, but instead on filling their own allotted page space. Many members of the editorial leadership remain over-involved on a campus-wide scale, a common problem not specific to The Tartan, with a core of students taking on a diversity of roles across the entire campus. Unfortunately for The Tartan, this involvement creates conflicts of interest that jeopardize the integrity of the paper.

Errors, both factual and grammatical, continue to exist on a weekly basis. While these are for the most part minor, more comprehensive error tracking from week to week to better assess long-term improvement should be put in place.

The digital efforts of The Tartan remain largely inconsequential; digital content is still primarily comprised of print content being reproduced online, almost exclusively on Mondays. The Tartan, like the entire journalism industry, needs to embrace the Internet and real-time news; however, how a college publication can best expend its limited resources between print and online is still an open question at many universities. Given Carnegie Mellon’s strong technical advantage, The Tartan could be a leader in this area.

Finally, advising, or lack thereof, was a major issue in the 2004 report, and I believe it remains critical to The Tartan’s success. Advising remains focused on policy and being inoffensive, not on how to conduct actual journalism or respond to the community. Either through a board of external advisers or an adviser with journalism experience, The Tartan must find a stronger source of journalistic knowledge, and the university, through the Office of Student Activities, should encourage and assist in creating that relationship in any way it can. If a successful advisory structure could be found, I have faith that it could replace and improve upon the position of ombudsman as a centralized and independent forum for community complaint. This should be a primary goal in the coming months.

The highlights:

Not everything at The Tartan is dire. The Tartan has begun weekly critiques of the paper this year for the first time, which should improve the paper through self-reflection. These critiques should assist new writers and staff members in understanding how to critically assess journalistic content. The constitutional reform mentioned above is by-and-large positive, moving to bring more of the staff into major decisions and thereby strengthening commitment to the organization, refining and detailing duties, and also forming an internal executive structure that can focus on long-term planning as well as weekly production of the paper.

The Tartan has continued recent improvement in monitoring of distribution, assessing the reach and locations of paper drops, and installing racks in different areas to make the paper more visible. The community has responded to several articles this year, including the coverage of the student body president’s lack of progress, the lighting of Hunt Library, and the vandalism of the Fence. The Fence vandalism has already become the year’s most-read article, but continuing to find stories that appeal broadly to the campus community cannot hinge on scandal, even if it is widely accepted as the most interesting news.

In signing off, I urge all of you to continue your pithy, vocal, and most of all deserved criticism of The Tartan, but please follow that up with an e-mail so that we can continue to push The Tartan into something Carnegie Mellon can be proud of.