The Reader's Representative

"Ombudsperson" is perhaps the clunkiest word in the English language.

A gender-neutralized version of the Swedish word for "intermediary," the ombudsperson of a newspaper is the advocate of the reader in the newsroom--the person who ensures that the voice of the reader is heard by the editors.

The first such functionary in this country appeared at the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1967. He was an "insider," who acted as a channel between readers and the editorship but did not evaluate the performance of the paper of publish occasional sermons on the sins of journalism.

Today, the role of the "reader representative" has changed. It is my responsibility not only to take complaints and make suggestions, but also to critique The Crimson and its content.

In this column, which will run bi-weekly on page three, I will attempt to explain how and why certain decisions are made, and, when appropriate take The Crimson to task for reporting or editing errors.


The views expressed here are mine alone.

One common complaint about The Crimson is that too often the paper runs stories without knowing all of the relevant facts.

On February 7, The Crimson printed an article about allegations of sexual harassment against Clay Professor of Scientific Archaeology Nikolaas van der Merwe. Specifically, several graduate students had alleged that van der Merwe, by telling sexuality explicit jokes, had created in the archaeology wing of the anthropology department an atmosphere that was extremely difficult for women.

The story was based on interviews with more than 50 students and professors over a two-month period however, no one who charged van der Merwe with misconduct spoke on the record.

Several other people whose comment would have been relevant to the story also refused to speak about the alleged incidents. Among them, Anthropology Department Chair Peter T. Ellison and graduate student Meredith Chesson. Ellison chaired a meeting last week to discuss morale in the archaeology wing of his department. Chesson was the student van der Merwe said had raised allegations against him because she didn't want to take his class.

Our reporters called Ellison's office at least nine times before the story ran to ask him for comment. He didn't return the calls. In December, he had said he wouldn't discuss any matter pertaining to his department.

Chesson told one reporter, "I have no statement to make whatsoever.

Without comment from these two, we certainly did not have all the facts relevant to the story at the time it ran. But this does not necessarily mean that we should not have run it.

Since the story appeared in last Monday's paper, both Chesson and Ellison have written letters to The Crimson. (Chesson's was printed in Wednesday's paper, Ellison's appeared in Friday's.) Additionally Ellison has spoken several times to our reporters on the record, for even an hour in total.

And this is why it is sometimes necessary--unfortunately--to run stories that are not as factually complete as we would like them to be. People initially unwilling to comment often do so after an article is published.

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