NPR ombud’s latest report raises important questions, but it’s not without flaws

The modern ombudsman has been a prominent fixture in several of the largest American newsrooms since The New York Times instituted its public editor in the wake of the Jayson Blair debacle a decade ago.

While the position itself has been controversial among journalism leaders, newsrooms that contract with an ombudsman signal to their audience that they take their work seriously enough to open themselves up to independent critique.

Every ombudsman worth his (or her, but most of them have been men) tenure produces a few particularly noteworthy reports or analyses during his tenure.

In 2004, Daniel Okrent took a look at The New York Times’ failure on weapons of mass destruction and did a very smart examination of whether The New York Times was liberal. Then Arthur S. Brisbane riled up readers as well as Times brass last year when he asked whether the Times should be a “truth vigilante.”

ESPN’s Don Ohlmeyer’s received a particular gift from the network in the form of “The Decision”  — LeBron James’ notorious announcement that he was leaving Cleveland for Miami. In that report, Ohlmeyer examined many of the central conflicts present at ESPN.

And now NPR’s current ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, has published a 35,000-word report excoriating a celebrated investigative series from 2011 in which the radio network examined the high rate at which the state of South Dakota places Native American kids into white foster homes.

Schumacher-Matos concludes that NPR should not have aired the series, citing two factual errors and a significant amount of missing context.

NPR has pushed back, but it’s also acknowledged a lack of attention to nuance, inadequate citation of sources in some cases, and that its reporters didn’t try hard enough to represent the view of the state once officials refused to answer questions.

This report likely will be what Schumacher-Matos is remembered for.

I’ve been following the work of ombudsmen since Okrent was appointed. I’ve been consulted for various columns with all of the previous New York Times public editors. I interviewed for the job at the New York Times and at NPR. And I served as the lead writer on ESPN’s Poynter Review Project, an 18-month stint in which we at Poynter offered public critiques of the Worldwide Leader in Sports.

Among the significant challenges to doing the job well:

  • selecting the right topics from a constantly growing pile of complaints, questions and concerns
  • producing a timely, yet thoughtful response
  • doing original reporting (something New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has done a good job of)
  • establishing collegial rapport, yet maintaining a professional distance from the employees of the organization
  • finding an outside editor to provide the necessary editing and to ensure the pieces serve the audience

The most interesting columns from ombudsmen are those that examine the complicated process of journalism — who does it, how stories are selected and how that process impacts the marketplace of ideas. That process has become increasingly complicated to explain in the wake of the digital revolution.

There is no doubt after reading Schumacher-Matos’ report that NPR made mistakes in the series. And it’s even reasonable to argue that because of those mistakes, NPR overreached in assigning blame and motives to state officials responsible for taking children from Native American families.

But Schumacher-Matos’ report also gets bogged down in arguments about which statistics to use, how to add up certain numbers and how to frame the story. Those philosophical arguments are great for a master’s thesis in journalism or a case study for a classroom, which is ultimately what he produces. But they significantly distract the audience (and perhaps even NPR officials) from the flaws in the stories. In doing so, Schumacher-Matos undermines his legitimate criticisms with an exercise in changing the subject.

This is one of the perils of being an ombudsman. Every issue is a quagmire. Your job is to wade through the messy backstory and identify how and where journalism’s core values were violated. Doing that as an independent person with limited support is tough. It’s why most ombudsmen have a contact list full of fellow thinkers to sort through ideas. It’s why most rely upon a trusted outside editor, who often doesn’t get paid. Every writer needs a good editor.

I don’t know whom Schumacher-Matos was relying on for help. I emailed him and he politely declined to do an interview or answer additional questions. He did post a follow-up, where he described his sourcing and his consultation with other journalists.

So I can’t describe what process he used to write his report, beyond what he has provided. What I can say is that the very length of his report, which tackles factual inaccuracies, missing context and broader philosophical questions about poverty and Native Americans, undermines its effectiveness.

Schumacher-Matos nails NPR on serious flaws and oversights. Namely, he identifies two numbers that were carelessly and erroneously thrown about and he identifies contextual issues that should have been addressed.

He also points out other valid concerns. The families who provided anecdotal material weren’t asked to sign waivers so that reporters could look at their case files, which meant any documented evidence of neglect that authorities were relying upon — weak or strong — didn’t make it into the story. Also, the problems of foster care cross cultural boundaries, affecting all poor communities.

Schumacher-Matos could have pointed out the errors and true contextual deficiencies in a single substantial column. By expending so much energy on the nebulous issues of how reporters could have framed the story and counted foster children differently, he turns a solid critique into something squishy that can be dismissed.

Perhaps the most glaring flaw of his critique is a lack of Native American voices. He  imports their voices from the original NPR report, as well as a follow-up talk-show conversation. But nowhere does he bounce his findings or theories off of the people who are at the heart of the story.

Janice Howe, the grandmother whose painful narrative of losing her four grandchildren to foster care was part of the NPR story, called Schumacher-Matos. In the introduction to his report, he describes her story as “unsubstantiated” and “based largely on hearsay.”

In response to her call he wrote, “I do not know the full truth about what is happening on the ground in South Dakota. My investigation focused on NPR’s adherence to its own journalism standards, not on the state, or the Indian Child Welfare Act, or government policy concerning Native Americans.”

Schumacher-Matos inadvertently seems to erase the connection between the current foster-care system endured by so many Native American children and a history of forced separation. While he is right to point out that you can’t simply assign racist motives to state officials running the social-service system in South Dakota, you likewise can’t insist that Native Americans’ past experience of suffering has no connection to their present experience.

It would have been reasonable for Schumacher-Matos to conclude this critique by suggesting that the staff on the series possibly shared a preconceived liberal bias that allowed them to oversimplify who the bad guys were (state officials) because it fit a convenient narrative.

Instead, he suggests that the journalists were asking the wrong question when they asked why most Native American children in South Dakota who enter foster care end up in white homes, in spite of a federal law that says that shouldn’t happen.

My fear is that this report will sour NPR leadership so much that Schumacher-Matos will be the last NPR ombudsman. I hope that doesn’t happen.

Having an ombudsman makes a newsroom better, even when that ombudsman seems unfair or off-base in making an assessment. Transparency has become a core value in modern journalism, and ombudsmen provide a significant mechanism for such transparency. And even when I disagree with their conclusions, I believe that ombudsmen provide a vital way for communities with connect to journalists and hold them accountable.

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here.

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  • http://twitter.com/dancow Dan Nguyen

    Incredible. Ms. McBride dismisses Mr. Schumacher-Matos’s report as a stodgy thesis “bogged down in arguments about which statistics to use.” But those statistics are at the very heart of the story’s thesis. If the revised and corrected numbers show that the state doesn’t make a monetary windfall from targeting Native American children for removal from their homes, then that takes away the “Why are bad things happening?” hypothesis that is necessary for any strong investigative story, especially, as Mr. Schumacher-Matos points out, as there were no whistleblowers or smoking gun evidence. And, if Mr. Schumacher-Matos analysis of which children were removed and by what jurisdiction is correct, then that takes away the other core of this story: that South Dakota state authorities are performing below expectations in this difficult area.

    How can Ms. McBride excuse the alleged error in the project’s opening and central anecdote, that 33 children of one tribe were all fostered in white homes? If Mr. Schumacher-Matos’s scrutiny is correct, then it means even the *cherry-picked anecdote* used by the reporter ends up refuting the project’s entire premise. More tellingly, if such an easily verifiable assertion was not only automatically accepted (whatever happened to, If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out?) but then *used as the main anecdote* for the series’ introduction, then it does not bode well for the rest of the reporting.

    McBride is right that the foster-care situation is still a tragedy, and Schumacher-Matos seems to agree. Where they differ is that McBride seems to think that the “big picture” matters even if the facts are wrong. This is a complete slap in the face of every investigative journalist who has ever spent a late night triple-checking every fact, calculation, and spelling in their stories.

    The final irony is the “the ombudsman protests too much” tone in McBride’s critique. It used to be that traditional journalists dismissed online-only journalism as lacking the depth and nuance of traditional journalism enterprise. Now an online journalist produces a thorough, well-researched report, so thorough that it is only possible to publish on the Internet, and the complaint is, “too long.”