Inside Media: The NPR Ombudsman

July 11, 2009

Guest: Alicia Shepard

By Lesette R. Heath, special programs coordinator

As ombudsman for National Public Radio, Alicia Shepard gets thousands of e-mails, phone calls and letters from listeners. Some offer accolades, others criticism. But several of them want answers. It might sound like a stressful job, but Shepard doesn’t mind.

"I am the public representative to NPR," she said. "My job is to listen. It’s not to defend."

Shepard, a longtime journalist, author and educator, believes that having an ombudsman holds a news organization accountable for the content it produces.

"It also shows that the organization is strong enough to be publicly criticized," she said.

There are about 40 news-related ombudsmen in the United States. The number, however, is dwindling. According to Shepard, harsh economic times caused 11 positions to be eliminated in the past year.

So, it seems she is part of an exclusive club. Others include the ombudsmen to The Washington Post, The New York Times and PBS. Still, acting as the liaison between NPR listeners and staff is challenging.

On any given day, Shepard is the woman caught in the middle. One issue that raised the ire of listeners was Israel’s bombing of Gaza last December. Within a half hour of NPR’s coverage, Shepard got a call describing NPR "as nothing more than National Palestinian Radio." About 15 minutes later another caller weighed in with "NPR is a mouthpiece for Israel."

But while she listens to countless gripes, Shepard doesn’t have any herself.

The job is "an honor and a privilege," she said. "NPR has a very extensive ethics code, so often I’m just there to remind them of the standards they’ve set. Overall, it’s fair to say they do a very good job."

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