Images on Al Jazeera of brutalized Americans in Iraq understandably still trouble some listeners, but NPR's acceptance of sponsorship support from the new Al Jazeera America fall well within free speech and ethical standards. Al Jazeera itself brings a valuable international voice into our living rooms.
Investigations into NPR stories and editorial practices in which independence, honesty and impartiality are questioned.
Here are some preliminary responses to your comments on the ombudsman process, on sourcing and on the length of my review of an NPR investigation into foster care for Native American children in South Dakota. Many of you wondered what NPR should do next. That is not for me to say, but one officer from the Native American Journalists Association has a suggestion. I also answer a grandmother quoted in the series who called me with a concern about truth.
An NPR investigation into foster care for American Indian children in South Dakota took on a serious issue but failed in several crucial respects. The series alleged that state social workers took children from their families as a way to get federal funds and put them in white homes out of cultural bias. While acknowledging secondary problems, editors defend the series, which won prizes. I find, however, that it violated NPR's standards because it lacked proof and failed to give the state's side on key points. The series also was characterized by an unfair tone, factual errors, misleading data and inadequate context. It should not have aired as it was. This introduction summarizes a six-chapter report on how not to do investigative storytelling.
The willful taking of American Indian children from their families was presented in the NPR investigation as the baseline of alleged widespread abuse of the foster care system by the state of South Dakota. But the series offered no documented proof, and it failed to fully discuss the centrally relevant matter of child neglect. The series also failed to report that South Dakota reservations have some of the highest levels in the country of alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, teenage pregnancy and similar ills. Many families there are struggling and falling apart.
The NPR investigation into foster care for Native American children in South Dakota sought to follow the money but misused the way federal incentives and bonuses work. The series alleged that state social workers took the children from their families as a way to reap funds for the state, but it gave no proof for this charge, which does not stand up to scrutiny. The weaknesses were covered over with tendentious language and tone.
The headline number in the NPR investigation into foster care for Native American children in South Dakota was that the state receives nearly $100 million a year in federal funds. The series alleged that this money — a large amount in a poor state — is driving state abuses of Native American children. Without clearly telling us, however, the $100 million number is poorly sourced and pumped up by including white children and adoptions. The state says it receives less than a quarter of that amount for Indians, even including funds for Medicaid and adoptions. The reporters have not given me information proving the state wrong.
The NPR investigation made inflated and misleading allegations that the state of South Dakota systematically puts American Indian children into white foster homes out of a cultural bias reminiscent of old Indian boarding schools. The series failed to report that the tribes' own judges make 40 percent of the foster home placements, often with the involvement of tribal social workers, and that there is an acute shortage of Native American foster homes. The series also ignored a companion program in which Indian children are indeed being put in Indian homes.
The conceptual basis of NPR's faulty investigation of American Indian foster care in South Dakota was a narrow — and misleading — interpretation of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. By focusing mostly on the act's call for protecting Indian culture, the series failed to discuss the equally important need to protect children. The series also ignored historic Indian sovereignty issues and changing concepts of race.
A cost-cutting, face-saving move by the Post to replace its independent ombudsman with what sounds like a customer care representative is sadly shortsighted. It contributes precisely to the decline in public trust that lies behind the travails at the Post and all American news media. NPR in polls confronts the same trust malady. The press grows in power, yet sheds ever more controls. Editors will never investigate themselves. The public rebels.
When a remark about the NRA by a sports commentator was edited out of later re-broadcasts and the Web edition, some listeners questioned NPR's editing policies. We asked the newsroom to explain this edit and the policy in general. What technology giveth, it taketh away.