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After an extensive investigation lasting well over a year, NPR's ombudsman has concluded the network's series on South Dakota's efforts to put Native American children in foster care was fundamentally flawed.
The network and the ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, who is paid to critique NPR's news coverage, have split sharply over his findings.
The series, which appeared in October 2011 on All Things Considered and was published on NPR.org, alleged that the state of South Dakota took Native American children and separated them from their families and tribes at an alarming rate. The series won national awards and helped inspire federal and state reviews of such policies.
NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan reported the original series over many months with producer Amy Walters, who now works for Al Jazeera America. The stories present a wrenching tale in South Dakota. American Indians make up 15 percent of the state's population, but, as Sullivan told listeners in October 2011, they account for more than half the children in foster care.
"It's not hard to find them," she reported. "There are thousands of them: Native Americans with missing children."
Listeners then heard from Tanya Hill, from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, among others. "I lost nine grandchildren through the Department of Social Services," she says.
NPR told listeners that state authorities appeared to be ignoring a federal law, the Indian Child Welfare Act, requiring them to do everything possible to place Native American foster children with relatives or other Native American families. They did so partly, NPR reported, because of cultural biases.
Some listeners and conservative commentators, such as John Hinderaker of the Powerline Blog, complained about the series from the outset. Ombudsman Schumacher-Matos started to hear from state officials, as well, including the governor.
"What struck me was how the facts — the basic facts, like budget facts and numbers — were so different from what was being reported in the NPR series," Schumacher-Matos says. "That kind of cried for investigation."
Starting in earnest at the outset of 2012, Schumacher-Matos found a series of failings.
As NPR reported, more than eight out of 10 Native American children in South Dakota assigned to foster homes were placed with white families. It also alleged a motive.
"A closer view of South Dakota's budget shows there's a financial incentive at work," Sullivan reported in 2011. "Every time a state puts a child in foster care, the federal government sends money. Because South Dakota is poor, it sends lots of money — almost $100 million a year."
As Schumacher-Matos found, and NPR News now acknowledges — that figure doesn't bear up to scrutiny.
Additionally, Schumacher-Matos decided the perspective of state officials was not adequately reflected in the piece. While the officials ultimately refused to cooperate with NPR, the network should have worked harder to represent them fairly, he says.
"The more I kept looking, I saw that there was a lot of missing context that should have been there," he says. "And finally, we didn't have response from the state on so many key points in the series ... It added up to deeply flawed report that shouldn't have aired as it was."
Schumacher-Matos wrote an exhaustive 80-page report, published late Friday at NPR.org, detailing his findings. NPR news executives declined to be interviewed for this story, pointing instead to the response they posted online. NPR's Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson and Margaret Low Smith, senior vice president for news, say NPR should have included far more documentary support for its assertions online and taken greater care to reflect the position of state officials.
That said, the network stands by the thrust of Sullivan's reporting. (Disclosure: The top ranks of NPR's news management team recused themselves from the preparation of this article about the dispute between the network and the ombudsman over the investigative series.)
A number of media figures, such as former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor William Grueskin, took to Twitter to comment that Schumacher-Matos' approach was laudable and an unusual instance of rigor and transparency.
Kelly McBride, a senior ethics scholar at The Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fl., who has also served as an ombudsman for ESPN, says Schumacher-Matos wanted NPR to produce a different story — one about the full crisis besetting Native American families — rather than simply critique the story it broadcast.
"In a way, it sets up an unfair challenge to NPR," McBride says. "Because, if he wants to do a column about why they chose this story instead of that story, then he should do that column. But he essentially does both in this very long report."
McBride argues that it's hard to tell whether the weight of the ombudsman's critique is warranted by the mistakes admittedly committed by NPR in this case. She faults both NPR and Schumacher-Matos for being less than clear about the source of their data.
"It's very possible, in an investigative story, to get certain facts wrong but still have the overall truth be quite accurate," McBride says. "And I'm not saying that's an excuse, because when that happens it's incredibly unfortunate and even irresponsible on part of journalists."
McBride contrasted the ombudsman's six-chapter critique, logging in excess of 30,000 words with the treatment given to Jayson Blair, one of journalism's most notorious fabricators. She says Schumacher-Matos' six-chapter report "was pretty significant" in comparison.
"That, I think, is more than everything that the New York Times wrote about Jayson Blair," McBride says. "And if you look at what Jayson Blair did, that was obviously much more egregious."
NPR's Wilson and Smith say Schumacher-Matos' lengthy exchanges with state officials impeded the ability of reporters to get more answers in follow-up reporting. But Schumacher-Matos says he decided to approach this story as a case study in how NPR offers investigative findings in a narrative form.
"It's too easy to let form get in the way of the substance," he says. "That if we're going to do investigative storytelling, we still have to state clearly what it is we have found and what it is we have not found."
NPR's Margaret Low Smith says the network took a hard look at its stories and simply reached a different conclusion than Schumacher-Matos did.