NPR Ombudsman Deep-Dives into the Story

Janice Howe on the Crow Creek Indian reservation in South Dakota

Janice Howe on the Crow Creek Indian reservation in South Dakota. Photo by John Poole/NPR

NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos ordinarily does what ombudsmen do: give voice to listeners, nip and tuck to correct the record, and referee claims of bias. This week he’s reviewed an NPR investigative story about South Dakota’s child protective policies. The crux of the original story is that state officials were disproportionately likely to remove Native American children to non-Native homes because accompanying federal aid adds to the state’s bottom line. But there’s a cultural backstory, though, and this deep-dive look at the reportage eighteen months after it aired is well worth the read.

Did we say ‘deep-dive’? Schumacher-Matos has thoughtfully (and exhaustively) probed the story to unearth an evident fault line between policy reporting that is best served cold and a hotter style of advocacy journalism that this kind of story would seem to beg. To the original 6-part NPR story, titled ‘Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families,’ he applies fine-grained analysis of story framing, tone, and substance treatment in what amounts to a graded graduate project.

But the stakes are higher than graduate work, however. The reporters, Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters, spent a year doing research. They’ve won awards for reporting it. And there is always tension between the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, state officials and Native American advocates and officials. This 3-parter ups the flame under that low boil.

In Schumacher-Matos’s analysis, this story series stepped away from NPR’s guidelines for accurate and objective reporting. He claims it violated five standards and ethics:  factual errors, misleading use of data, over-reliance upon anecdotes, “incomplete reporting” and a failure to gain the state’s perspective on key points. Wrapping up his multi-part critique is installment 6: “Where It All Went Wrong — The Framing.” Yikes.

Clearly mistakes were made in reporting that story, but perhaps not due to bad faith but too much zeal (as Schumacher-Matos says). And it’s evident in part I of the series. But passion is the fuel of advocacy. Of course it might not have such a prominent place in an NPR investigation. (Frankly, we didn’t know NPR was conducting investigations.)

But zeal might just be in order. After listening to the on-air piece, then reading the three-part posted Sullivan story, and finally following up with the Ombudsman’s take, one feels that the State of South Dakota doesn’t really shine here either.* State officials did themselves no favor by simply skipping a summit this summer convened specifically to canvas the Indian nation experience and to address flaws in state-level administration of federal Indian Child Welfare Act law programs. Great job, governor!

It’s really a great graduate seminar in parsing the distinction between policy & advocacy journalism and highlights the importance of social and cultural context to understanding complex public policy solutions to intractable problems. But the most ‘meta’ aspect of this whole bundle is how it reflects our position as listeners. Most of us are not living on the Crow Creek reservation – among the most economically and otherwise disadvantaged places in the United States. So we likely look through the same subjective lens as do South Dakota officials who apply a 10-point scale of ‘neglect’ before removing a child. The courts, after all, must agree (a point downplayed in the investigation).

Sullivan wants to swap that lens for a more culturally-specific one, however, and tracks the perspective of those she’s working alongside in telling the story. Her tone suggests that she’s not only witnessing an injustice, but a culturally-specific kind of injustice.

For his part, Schumacher-Machos applies NPR’s own checklist: that network’s code of standards and ethics. So he negotiates the cited facts and figures and tallies his own in order to expose weakness in the reporter’s accuracy (and he suggests some reportorial slacking). And he notes how positional terms like “but” and “still” tend to follow too-few officials’ statements in order to undermine them. Yet he can’t specifically point to a bad-faith effort to slant the story or, worse, even suggest bogus or fraudulent reporting. Tellingly he’s tagged this as an ‘ethics’ and not a ‘fairness & accuracy’ post.

There’s much to chew on here. For extra credit check out some of the additional material that fleshes out Schumacher-Matos’s story about the story, including a Talk of the Nation interview with byliner Laura Sullivan and numerous Native American perspectives on state compliance with the federal law that endeavors to protect Native children from cultural alienation in cases of alleged ‘neglect.’ Again, this comes nearly 18 months after the original story aired, which is interesting enough. Now we’ll try to get a look at the draft he submitted to NPR before revising it after their comments!

*We’ve spent some time in South Dakota about 15 years ago, and back then had contracted with the state on unrelated work. Some of the criticisms leveled by Sullivan and the tribes sound perfectly plausible: cultural predispositions against Native Americans, hostility to federal regulation and most central to the thrust of the story (the state profiting from removing children from Native homes) trading on political connections for business. We’d be shocked if these forces weren’t at work in South Dakota.