NPR stands by story its ombudsman criticized

There are six chapters of NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’ epic examination of Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters’ October 2011 investigation about foster care in South Dakota.

The series won awards but was also criticized by the state’s governor and head of its Department of Social Services. “Many South Dakota residents also have written me in disapproval of it,” Schumacher-Matos writes. “My finding is that the series was deeply flawed and should not have been aired as it was,” Schumacher-Matos writes. He lists the story’s “five sins”:

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.

Schumacher-Matos finds problems big and small with the series’ reporting in subsequent chapters.

In one instance, a tribal leader named Peter Lengkeek, whom NPR interviewed on-air, tells a researcher working with Schumacher-Matos on his piece that the series misunderstood some statistics he gave the original reporters. Schumacher-Matos passed that on to Sullivan, he writes, but the error remains uncorrected. In yet another, the series reported South Dakota gets from the federal government “almost $100 million a year to subsidize its foster care program.” That number, he reports, is much lower.

NPR stands by the stories,” Kinsey Wilson (who is on Poynter’s board of trustees) and Margaret Low Smith write in a separate editors’ note. Among other concessions, their piece says NPR “should have taken extra care to reflect the state’s position through other sources,” says the $100 million figure the series reported was probably wrong and says the series didn’t document the reporters’ findings well enough online.

But they say they find Schumacher-Matos’ “unprecedented effort to ‘re-report’ parts of the story to be deeply flawed.” Those quotation marks seem to ask how Schumacher-Matos could possibly compete with the reportorial firepower NPR unleashed on this story.

The “only source that figures in any significant way in the ombudsman’s account is a state official whose department activities were the subject of the series,” they write (what’s Peter Lengkeek — chopped liver?).

More important, as Schumacher-Matos notes in his piece, the people who produced the report “declined to respond on the record to most of the points in this report.”

Wilson and Smith write that they’ve “spent weeks with our team, re-examining the hundreds of interviews and documents that formed the basis of the series” and say “Overall, the process surrounding the ombudsman’s inquiry was unorthodox, the sourcing selective, the fact-gathering uneven, and many of the conclusions, in our judgment, subjective or without foundation. For that reason, we’ve concluded there is little to be gained from a point-by-point response to his claims.”

That seems like a bizarre echo of the “adversarial posture” Wilson and Smith say South Dakota took during the series’ reporting. If NPR’s unwilling to add even more chapters to the literature on this series by engaging with the totality of Schumacher-Matos’ report, it might want to ease up on the scare quotes.

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  • Ex-Oligarch

    Let me get this straight: NPR “spent weeks with [its] team” reviewing in detail the specific facts and conclusions in the ombudsman’s report, but will not provide a substantive response to them. Quite obviously, NPR’s management won’t do so because they can’t refute the ombudsman’s reporting.

    It’s bad enough when politicians high and low engage in this sort of cowardly stonewalling, but for a public media outlet like NPR to perpetrate such inept chicanery itself is really an insult to its audience.

  • Michele Mikelonis Nicholson

    That’s the strategy…discredit the discreditor? And exactly how does that add to your credibility that was badly damaged by his findings? As a former reporter and a regular NPR listener, I found this report both fascinating and disappointing. I have enough life experience to know from a strictly common sense standpoint that there aren’t enough foster homes to go around and poverty has devastating consequences on Indian Reservations. That occurred to me even before I saw the ombudsman’s report. Leaving out those perspectives makes no sense unless you have an agenda you are pushing in my opinion.

  • HallandaleBeachBlog

    Thanks for reporting on this situation at NPR and being as nuanced as you were about reporters who don’t seem willing to acknowledge honest criticism.
    There’s a lot of that going around…

    Former Miami Herald Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos’ position at the Herald remains unfilled 27 months later by McClatchy execs, who seem to place no value on readers and their questions of fairness or bias having a seat at the table.
    There’s nobody to represent readers’ deep concerns about bias, misrepresentation and flackery on behalf of South Florida’s powerful & privileged. Just one of many unresolved customer problems there these days that cause it to lose readers every week.

    A lot of people in South Florida took ESM and his position for granted, and the Herald certainly did him no favors by NOT giving him either a blog or a weekly print or online column, instead, saddling him with a peculiar once-in-a-while, sometimes every 3-4 months column thing.

    But something, even infrequent, is better than nada, and nada is about the level of confidence that most serious readers of the Herald have in what they are doing..
    His infrequent columns at least tried to keep Herald reporters and editors on the level and be square with readers, but since he left, anything goes.