Aaron Connelly: A Hatchet ombudsman would promote greater transparency

Hatchet editor in chief Michael Barnett’s column (“‘No comment’ doesn’t mean no story,” Oct. 10, p. 5) successfully defended The Hatchet’s policy of running a story without University comment. But it did little more than scratch the surface regarding the paper’s editorial choices in running a story about dismissed sex education professor Michael Schaffer.

Barnett writes that perhaps such a necessarily unbalanced story “should have occupied a less prominent space on the newspaper’s front page.” In a related development, Barnett plans to publish a Web log from the paper’s new Web site on how the news is reported there. That such introspection is occurring today in the townhouse on G Street is great news. Still, it’s not enough.

As one of the best student newspapers in the country, The Hatchet should also be one of the most transparent student newspapers in the country. The best way to accomplish this would be the appointment of an independent ombudsman. A number of other student newspapers around the country, including the University of Virginia’s Daily Cavalier, already employ student ombudsmen in order to receive and investigate reader inquiries about editorial choices made by the paper. The ombudsman is not a super-editor with editorial oversight powers, but rather the reader’s editor, entitled only to unfettered newsroom access and space to regularly publish his findings and insights into the paper’s editorial choices.

The ombudsman, of course, would need to be a strongly independent, smart student with the capability and background to examine complicated and nuanced editorial decisions. At large newspapers such as The New York Times, which employs a similar “public editor,” the ombudsman is a newspaperman with years of on-the-job journalism experience. Obviously The Hatchet is unlikely to find a student of this caliber within the George Washington undergraduate or graduate student body. But there are certainly a number of students who are interested in and active in journalistic scholarship, and any one these students would provide a commensurate level of expertise to that which the current editorial staff offers in their own positions.

An ombudsman at The Hatchet would be empowered not just to explore the prominence of articles like those about Schaffer’s dismissal, but also to explore broader coverage and management issues. What type of stories should The Hatchet arts section focus on? When is the Student Association worthy of coverage? Is the distinction between the editorial board and the news departments as clear as it should be? Should sometimes SA official Asher Corson have been brought on as a columnist? Should a photo of a recently deceased student’s covered corpse be published?

These are all questions which have arisen regarding Hatchet coverage and management in the last two years which the staff has not satisfactorily addressed in ink, partially because it can’t. Though the Hatchet townhouse is full of bright, hard-working students, it does not have the independence to adequately examine these important issues. Investigation into these issues by an independent “reader’s editor” would produce a more transparent newspaper, and better journalism. As the Hatchet sends reporters out to prominent news organizations such as The Washington Post, Associated Press and United Press International, it just might produce better journalists, as well.

It would certainly allow readers to make up their own mind about the necessarily controversial decisions that are made by a good student newspaper in the course of a year, by giving them full and independently acquired information. Hiring an ombudsman would be good for The Hatchet, good for the subjects of its coverage and good for the University community generally.

-The writer, a junior majoring in international affairs, is studying at England’s Oxford University this year.

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