Working to connect with Stripes readers

By ERNIE GATES | Stars and Stripes ombudsman | Published: February 23, 2012

Having spent a career in journalism learning — and, eventually, trying to teach — news values, I’m honored to have been appointed ombudsman for Stars and Stripes. It’s a privilege to protect Stripes’ First Amendment character and a privilege to represent the interests of Stripes’ readers. Those two tasks are inextricably bound. To do one is to do the other.

Far from American shores, Stars and Stripes readers deserve and expect a broad, timely, credible news report. They deserve and expect a report that lives up to high standards of accuracy, fairness and impartiality. And they can get that from Stars and Stripes because the journalists here operate under the same rules and with the same freedoms as other news organizations.

Even recognizing that it takes a special connection to the Defense Department to put Stripes in the hands of servicemembers far downrange, where commercial newspapers won’t be found, Stripes has more in common with everyday American newspapers than not.

For example, the newspaper at which I spent three decades as a reporter and editor specializes in news for and about servicemembers and their families. Considering the military presence in Hampton Roads, Va., home to the world’s largest Navy base, the Air Combat Command headquarters, a major Army transportation command and a Joint Forces brain trust, how could it not? At the Daily Press, stories about deployments, operations and homecomings are common, though never routine.

It’s not the military coverage, though, but the larger mission my old newsroom shares with Stars and Stripes that is the crucial common element. For the Daily Press and for Stars and Stripes, that mission is to give readers accurate, fair and independent information they can use to exercise their rights and their liberty. What newsrooms all over America do for their hometown readers, Stars and Stripes does for the many thousands of servicemembers and their families overseas.

It’s understandable that people see the essential operating connections between Stripes and the Pentagon and mistakenly assume that Stripes is a “house organ” for the Defense Department. I heard that misunderstanding from friends and former colleagues in response to my appointment. In fact, this ombudsman position exists because, more than 20 years ago, Congress concluded that to provide the troops and their families overseas a free flow of information, Stars and Stripes required “adequate safeguards to ensure against censorship or news management.”

So far, everywhere I have turned in this organization, I have found a commitment to that larger mission.

It’s also heartening to hear the views of the people who depend on it: the deployed servicemembers and their families. In research conducted for Stripes, those readers describe the paper with words like “lifeline,” “connection” and “hometown.” Judging its journalism, they find it “reliable,” “impartial” and “unbiased” but “tuned to servicemembers.”

To strive for that standard in my own performance as ombudsman, I intend to do this job at arm’s length — a phrase that to me indicates independence, but also proximity. “At arm’s length” is separate enough from the newsroom to have perspective on its journalistic performance, but close enough to defend its journalistic prerogatives. “At arm’s length” is separate enough from Stripes and from the Defense Department to be free of any undue influence, but close enough to look somebody in the eye when there’s a question or disagreement. In fact, it’s so close that you have to look the other person in the eye, which seems to me a fair thing to expect of anybody who would judge or criticize somebody else’s actions or decisions.

I hope this column is the beginning of a long, critical, constructive conversation, one that can happen here in print, on my blog at stripes.com and — soon — in an expanded social media presence.

I welcome your comments and questions, from near or far. Let’s talk.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.

Ernie Gates’ blog

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