NPR dismisses an ombudsman report

Executives disagree with a sharp critique of an award-winning series

An internal review found serious problems with an award-winning NPR investigation.

This past Friday, NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos released an 80-page report reviewing an October 2011 Peabody-winning investigation into the South Dakota foster care system’s treatment of Native American children. The ombudsman’s review concluded that the investigation as aired violated NPR’s Code of Ethics.

NPR management has vehemently disagreed with the ombudsman’s findings. In an “Editor’s Note” posted that same night as the report, Chief Content Officer and Executive Vice President Kinsey Wilson and Margaret Low Smith, the senior vice president of news, stood by the substance of the reports. Furthermore, they characterize the ombudsman’s analysis of the story as “deeply flawed,” describing the way the “re-report” was carried out as “unorthodox.”

The original series, by Laura Sullivan and producer Amy Walters, was a three-part investigation which alleged that there were disproportionate removals of native children from their families into white foster homes. These disparities put South Dakota in possible violation of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, a law intended to prevent and minimize the separation of native children from their families and culture.

In his review, the ombudsman cited the investigation for violating NPR’s Code of Ethics in five ways:

1. No proof for its main allegations of wrongdoing;
2. Unfair tone in communicating these unproven allegations;
3. Factual errors, shaky anecdotes and misleading use of data by quietly switching what was being measured;
4. Incomplete reporting and lack of critical context;
5. No response from the state on many key points.

The Ombudsman’s review directed most of its censure at the first of the work’s three parts, which made the most pointed allegations of state wrongdoing, including claims of improper removals of native children from their families and the implication that these removals were motivated by “federal financing incentives.”

NPR executives claim in their online statement that the sourcing of the ombudsman’s report was incomplete and that many of his conclusions were “subjective or without foundation.” Because of these flaws, they concluded, his charges do not warrant a point-by-point response. They additionally take vigorous exception to the way that his interaction with state officials, in their view, “impeded NPR’s ability to engage those officials in follow-up reporting.” According to the response, NPR executives were first shown a draft of this review in September of last year. After NPR’s editors separately looked over the reporting and sourcing of investigative series, there was a December meeting with the ombudsman. NPR, through its media relations office, declined to comment to CJR beyond the posted statement.

Both sides do, however, agree that there were flaws in the series. The ombudsman’s report focuses on what he saw as missing context in the investigation, as well as an attempt—in his view—to use the unique “narrative storytelling” method of NPR to obscure a lack of hard proof of the alleged misconduct. According to his review, there are many moments where the incomplete viewpoints of the story’s sources are allowed to stand on their own as accusations without clarification from the reporter. In response, NPR management conceded four major flaws with the story—including a failure to clearly distinguish between conditions affecting all foster children in the state and conditions specifically affecting native children, as well as a failure to clarify the distinction between tribal and state legal proceedings—but found the reporting sound and the patterns identified “well documented.”

This is not the first time in recent years the reporting of a major public radio investigation was questioned. In March of last year, the separately produced program This American Life retracted an entire episode on factory conditions in China after major fabrications were discovered in the underlying account of Mike Daisey, whose one-man play formed the basis of the episode. A report earlier this year from NPR’s Planet Money on issues with the Social Security Disability program (which also ran on This American Life) received strong criticism from left-wing groups and advocates for the disabled for what they saw as distortions in its portrayal of the program. While some phrasing in the story was later clarified and Planet Money ran a post collecting responses to the program, there was no formal report from the ombudsman. In his review on the South Dakota situation, the ombudsman cites several other reports from the investigative unit that required later clarification.

The central question that remains is whether or not the investigation, as aired, violated any internal standards at NPR. The ombudsman argues so, while management stands by the work. In the official response to the ombudsman’s review, NPR management correctly points out that the majority of the new information Schumacher-Matos used to question the original reporting came from the state—which had an obvious incentive to cooperate with the ombudsman. Additionally, the ombudsman’s review concedes at points that there are unresolvable uncertainties with the situation, and does not claim that the holes it finds in the original reporting absolve the state of abuses its workers may have committed. At stake in this controversy is more than just a Peabody: It’s the very reputation of both the investigative unit and the ombudsman.

Update, 4pm: According to the ombudsman’s office, All Things Considered interviewed Schumacher-Matos, and the office additionally plans to publish a followup piece on the controversy later this week.

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Abraham Moussako is a former CJR intern. Follow him on Twitter at @AMoussako. Tags: