IPSO Blog: Have standards of complaints handling at newspapers improved?

Sitting in IPSO’s office, I regularly hear my colleagues giving advice to publishers about how to handle complaints effectively.

Listening to those conversations over the two years I’ve been Head of Standards, I’ve noticed real improvements in how some publishers approach complaints handling. Often publishers and complainants will find a resolution to the complaint which suits all parties, but this is only achievable if the complaint is handled well by the publisher – if correspondence is courteous and timely and concerns are listened to.

Handling complaints effectively is extremely important, because a complaints process provides redress for complainants but also gives publishers the opportunity to learn from mistakes they have made and prevent their recurrence – perhaps by providing training or amending internal processes.

When publishers uphold high standards in complaints handling, they are demonstrating their accountability to their readership and transparency in their journalism. One way in which publishers demonstrate accountability is by addressing published inaccuracies and drawing those inaccuracies to the attention of readers and the public. They do this through the publication of corrections or clarifications in established columns.

All IPSO members are required to have a procedure in place to handle complaints. Each publisher will have a different approach to handling complaints, based on their audience and material published. Some publications have never received a complaint in the entire time they have been publishing.

Every year I review each publisher’s complaints handling process when I look at their annual statement. The annual statement process is incredibly valuable. They are a very public statement, in a publisher’s own words, of the steps they take to meet journalistic standards and what they do when they don’t meet those standards.

Looking at those complaints processes, and listening to colleagues on the phone, I believe that publishers have improved how they handle complaints. But to date we’ve never been able to evidence whether or not this is actually happening.

With this in mind, we have commissioned The University of Sheffield to undertake some research into how IPSO members handle complaints. We want to understand whether or not there have been any improvements in complaints handling, and the reasons why there have been improvements, or the situation has got worse.

This project will assess whether there have been changes in standards of complaints handling. This will involve a mix of quantitative and qualitative research. Using quantitative research, the researchers will measure the speed and prominence with which inaccuracies are corrected. The researchers will also interview professionals working at member publishers to discuss whether the standard of complaints handing has changed and, if so, how.

We recently celebrated our third birthday. The time feels right to think beyond the work that we do each day to consider more broadly the impact that IPSO is making on editorial standards, and trying to make, on our members. This research will make an important contribution to that discussion.