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.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon