Fielding Complaints & Compliments: A Conversation With NPR's Outgoing Ombudsman
Edward Schumacher-Matos ends his tenure as NPR's ombudsman at the end of the month, after a three-year stint fielding the complaints, compliments and suggestions of the NPR audience.
During an exit interview on St. Louis on the Air, Schumacher-Matos explained that having a set end date with no contract renewals allows an ombudsman to retain his independence.
Previously, Schumacher-Matos served as ombudsman for The Miami Herald, founded four Spanish-language daily newspapers and held several senior positions at The New York Times.
Schumacher-Matos said the position of ombudsman is valuable because it gives listeners an outlet to share their thoughts about programming with the media outlet. Depending on what issues are being reported on at the time, he said he can receive anywhere from 24 to a couple hundred emails and phone calls a day.
He found the NPR audience to be a passionate bunch, with a close connection to NPR.
“I know of two media outlets in the United States where the audience considers the outlet theirs. It’s a part of their life and they have an emotional attachment to it,” said Schumacher-Matos. “One’s the New York Times, where I worked. And one is NPR.”
While the most popular subject of comment varied based on the news of the day, Schumacher-Matos said the most common complaint is that a story didn’t give enough context. Given the time constraints of radio, a reporter sometimes can’t include as much information as they would like, but he does sift through the breadth of NPR’s coverage on issues to make sure all facets are covered and that bias is avoided.
The most frequent compliment he receives is that NPR coverage and interviews are intelligent and respectful.
Recent NPR Controversies
Schumacher-Matos also spoke about recent debates over journalistic ethics and programming decisions, including the internal memo from NPR Standards & Practices telling reporters to consider retweets endorsements.
Schumacher-Matos said that the decision to end NPR’s Tell Me More was based on the idea that racial issues can be covered in other ways, such as online and in local shows.
He said that local shows “have become so good and sophisticated at dealing with these issues that, and dealing with them in a way that matters most to their audience, that the demand for a national show that dealt with these issues of diversity, as good that show was … could not find a big audience.”
Schumacher-Matos also responded to several caller questions, including an explanation of why NPR now refers to the president without honorifics after first mention. He made the call after getting listener comments objecting to the appearance of bias during the last presidential campaign. Previously, an incumbent was called President so-and-so, while the other candidates were simply referred to by their last names.