NPR ombud sharply criticizes acclaimed 2011 investigative story

By Andrew Lapin

An award-winning 2011 NPR investigative series about Native American children in South Dakota’s foster-care system was seriously flawed and should not have aired, according to an 80-page report written by NPR’s ombudsman.

Over 18 months, Edward Schumacher-Matos researched and rereported information included in reporter Laura Sullivan’s three-part series, which asserted that South Dakota’s government was placing Native foster children in non-Native homes at unusually high rates, in violation of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. In the series, Sullivan attributed the state’s actions to cultural bias and a financial incentive, reporting that the practice entitled the state to receive more federal funds.

The series, which aired on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, earned a Peabody Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Award and prompted congressional legislation. Native tribes have held summits on reforming the state’s foster-care system. But in his Aug. 9 report, Schumacher-Matos found Sullivan’s reporting committed five major journalistic violations: lack of proof, unfair tone, factual errors, incomplete reporting, and failure to represent all points of view. In a response to Schumacher-Matos, NPR’s news chiefs conceded some flaws but defended the story and took issue with the ombudsman’s findings and reporting methods.

“The two sides — the state and the reporters — stuck to hugely separate versions of not just interpretation, but also of what would seem to be easily measureable facts,” Schumacher-Matos wrote. He added that, as aired, the report “falls so far short in proving its allegations and implications of widespread state abuse that the series, as presented, is itself an injustice.” He reached these conclusions by: rereporting many aspects of the story himself, using sources from the South Dakota statehouse who did not cooperate with Sullivan.

Based on his own research, Schumacher-Matos alleged that Sullivan’s estimate of the federal funds South Dakota received for its foster-care program — $100 million — was heavily inflated. The ombudsman concluded that the actual amount the state receives for Native children in foster care is closer to $23 million per year.

Schumacher-Matos also argued that the report overlooked the number of Native foster cases handled by tribal rather than state judges and that relatively few Natives qualify as foster-care providers under state law. He went on to identify problems inherent in framing a data-based investigative story in a narrative context, a common technique in NPR reporting.

The ombudsman told NPR media reporter David Folkenflik that he intended for his report to serve as a case study that NPR could learn from for future investigations.

Schumacher-Matos presented a preliminary version of the report to journalists involved with the story and to NPR CEO Gary Knell late last year. Rather than answer the ombudsman’s allegations point for point, Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson and Senior VP of News Margaret Low Smith wrote a response in which they stood by the series and challenged Schumacher-Matos’s methods.

“We find his unprecedented effort to ‘re-report’ parts of the story to be deeply flawed,” they wrote, adding that Schumacher-Matos’s communications with South Dakota state officials “has impeded NPR’s ability to engage those officials in follow-up reporting.”

“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,” Wilson and Smith wrote.

However, Wilson and Smith conceded that certain aspects of the series were flawed, including the citing of the $100 million figure.

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