Opinion: Investigation of NPR's ICWA series not without flaws

Kelly McBride comments on an 80-page report from National Public Radio's ombudsman that uncovered flaws with a series on the Indian Child Welfare Act in South Dakota:
There is no doubt after reading Schumacher-Matos’ report that NPR made mistakes in the series. And it’s even reasonable to argue that because of those mistakes, NPR overreached in assigning blame and motives to state officials responsible for taking children from Native American families.

But Schumacher-Matos’ report also gets bogged down in arguments about which statistics to use, how to add up certain numbers and how to frame the story. Those philosophical arguments are great for a master’s thesis in journalism or a case study for a classroom, which is ultimately what he produces. But they significantly distract the audience (and perhaps even NPR officials) from the flaws in the stories. In doing so, Schumacher-Matos undermines his legitimate criticisms with an exercise in changing the subject.

This is one of the perils of being an ombudsman. Every issue is a quagmire. Your job is to wade through the messy backstory and identify how and where journalism’s core values were violated. Doing that as an independent person with limited support is tough. It’s why most ombudsmen have a contact list full of fellow thinkers to sort through ideas. It’s why most rely upon a trusted outside editor, who often doesn’t get paid. Every writer needs a good editor.

I don’t know whom Schumacher-Matos was relying on for help. I emailed him and he politely declined to do an interview or answer additional questions. He did post a follow-up, where he described his sourcing and his consultation with other journalists.

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Kelly McBride: NPR ombud’s latest report raises important questions, but it’s not without flaws (Poynter 8/15)

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