Fact-Checking A Fraud: The 'First Lie' Wasn't Really The First : NPR Ombudsman A new correction on a 2012 story is a good reminder for journalists to be skeptical.
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Fact-Checking A Fraud: The 'First Lie' Wasn't Really The First

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Adam Cole/NPR

On Dec. 10, my office (as well as the NPR newsroom directly) received emails from a retired Bellingham, Wash., resident named Paul Vanderveen, requesting corrections to an NPR story.

My office gets requests for corrections nearly every week and normally we don't write about them. Occasional mistakes are a regrettable byproduct of journalism and it's more important that errors get corrected quickly, as I've found NPR usually does. But this one stood out, and seemed worth a closer look.

One unusual element: The errors, Vanderveen said, were made quite a few years ago, in 2012. Another oddity: To back up his request, Vanderveen linked to a roughly 13,000-word essay he had written and posted in several installments on a personal blog that had been dormant since 2010. (Here's a link to a PDF of all the chapters.)

Vanderveen's concerns were about the "Psychology Of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things," in all its iterations. The story was first told in a deeply reported 26-minute April 2012 episode of the Planet Money podcast. In addition to the Web version, a shortened version of the story was told May 1, 2012, on All Things Considered. The podcast was rebroadcast, with updates, on July 3, 2015.

The subject of the story was Toby Groves, an Ohio man who committed multimillion-dollar bank fraud. Planet Money used him as a case study to talk about how people slide into committing unethical acts, sometimes without even realizing they are doing so.

The story was reported by Alix Spiegel, a veteran of NPR's Science Desk, who now co-hosts the Invisibilia podcast, and Chana Joffe-Walt, who has since left NPR for another public radio program, This American Life. Both have won multiple awards for their work.

It took two months from the time of Vanderveen's email for the newsroom to complete its investigation (including delays over the holidays), but this week NPR added the needed corrections, including an insert to the audio of the podcast that directs listeners to the online correction.

The correction reads:

"In this story, we refer to Toby Groves' lie in 2004 on his mortgage loan application as 'his first bad act.' We should have noted that according to court records, Groves admitted that he began the 'scheme' to defraud banks 'on or about June 30, 2003.' In addition, court records show he admitted to owing the federal Internal Revenue Service $299,997 for claims made about the tax years 2001-2003.

Also in this story, Groves discusses what he sees as a key moment in his life — his brother's 1986 bank fraud conviction. Groves describes what he says was his father's anguish over a front-page newspaper story. Our Web coverage includes illustrations that make it appear as if a photo of Groves' brother was on the front page and that the family's name was in the headline. But archives show that the Cincinnati Enquirer's coverage did not include a front-page image of Groves' brother. The family's name was not in the headline. Instead, the brother's name appeared inside the newspaper.

The details about others in this report — including researchers Lamar Pierce, Francesca Gino and Ann Tenbrunsel — are not in question. The blog Paul Vanderveen's Attitude of Reciprocity drew NPR's attention back to this story."

The correction relating to the newspaper seems less important than the one about the timing of Groves' initial wrongdoing. The anecdote made for dramatic storytelling, but it's possible that Groves either exaggerated or misremembered family lore, as many people do. Still the reporters should have caught it and asked him about it (as Spiegel acknowledged to me).

The incorrect dates, however, pose a deeper challenge. The overall topic of the NPR pieces was the root cause of unethical behavior, and to tell the story, the reporters focused on what they called (in the Web version of the story) "The First Lie."

But, as Vanderveen said in his initial email to NPR: "The act of fraud that the journalists presented (in the different story versions) as Toby Groves' 'first bad act,' 'first lie' and 'very first unethical act' was none of these. And Toby's subsequent use of employee and outside co-conspirators to commit massive fraud wasn't his first use of co-conspirators either. These claims were central to the NPR story in all versions, and it was very easy to suspect and determine that the claims were false."

He elaborated in his blog post:

"They told us an internally consistent but false tale about Toby. They didn't inadvertently or by accident get just one minor fact wrong. They mischaracterized Toby's lie on his home equity loan application as his first lie, making a key statement of fact consistent with other impressions they had given us in order to demonstrate an idea.

There was no understood or plausible context in which that key statement was true. This wasn't Toby's first lie, his first serious, consequential or instrumental lie, his first instrumental lie about his income or about his house. It wasn't his first act of fraud. It wasn't the fraud which 'opened the door' or 'spread' or ballooned 'into a $7 million fraud.' The door was already wide open following other bad things Toby had done earlier in life, including some things it was very easy to find out about with information the journalists possessed and provided to us."

Vanderveen goes so far as to say, "The journalists told us a fraudulent story about fraud, doing a bad thing themselves while trying to demonstrate why we do bad things."

I have turned up no evidence that shows the errors were intentional, as Vanderveen asserts. But Spiegel, Joffe-Walt and Anne Gudenkauf, an editor who, along with Planet Money, oversaw the audio pieces, cannot say why the mistakes were made. The correction is embarrassing for a podcast that Planet Money once called "one of our favorite episodes we've ever done."

Spiegel told me, "It's very clear I had the information" about Groves' previous wrongdoing, including the court records referred to in the correction. "It's one of the first things I pulled as a reporter," she said.

"All of that information was in hand and reported out by the team," Gudenkauf said, adding that the question is not whether the team knew about it, but "more, why did we label this point in 2004" as Groves' first lie.

Spiegel said she can't recall that part of the process (nor can she recall how they decided to focus on Groves to begin with or how they learned about him). "I don't know at this point why it is that we made the decision, if it was a decision, if it was some oversight. I know that I have the information. I can't reconstruct why would I portray it the way that we did."

Spiegel said she and Joffe-Walt co-interviewed and co-wrote the project, in what she called a complicated writing and editing process that involved the science desk and Planet Money.

Joffe-Walt told me by email that she, too, had no insight, but "I am certain we did not exclude facts we had on hand in order to intentionally mislead listeners. That does not excuse the error though, which I really regret."

In the intervening years, Spiegel has had nearly four dozen NPR bylines and worked on three seasons of the Invisibilia podcast, so it's not surprising that she and the others can't reconstruct their decision-making in this one story from more than five years ago.

But these are not satisfying answers.

Audiences in recent years have flocked to the kind of in-depth narrative storytelling that these pieces embodied; the flourishing podcast world is full of shows that have found a way to take complex concepts (such as the psychology of fraud) and make them accessible to wide audiences, often using what seems to be a perfect example illustrating a broader theme. These stories rely heavily on building blocks such as "the first lie" and require listeners to trust that the journalists have thoroughly researched the undergirding background.

As Vanderveen put it to me in a phone conversation: "We are trusting the journalists to present an interesting narrative that engages us, and we are trusting them to not distort the facts, not to embellish things in order to be more persuasive with us."

Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, who investigated Vanderveen's complaint, said the information "was all there to be fairly easily found." He said Groves "might still make an interesting subject for this piece; we just needed to check what he was telling us against court records and newspaper archives." Had they checked the records, he said, the reporters might also have decided, "'No, we're going to find someone else.'"

Memmott talked to Groves during his investigation and said, "There's a very good case to make that he still in his heart believes things started to go bad in 2004." The reporters, he added, "did not make that part up, but what they should have done is challenge it or explain it," since the dates of the earlier misdeeds directly contradict what Groves told them.

I don't agree with all of Vanderveen's conclusions, but I was curious about what led him to invest so much time and effort in this exercise.

He told me he heard of the story from a friend who "knew of my interest in fraud," and he then listened to the podcast. "In May 2012, before I finished listening to and reading the news story, I knew that the tale of Toby's first fraud was fiction. I also thought that I could find confirming evidence of that on the Internet. And indeed, it took me about 5 minutes right then to find the two main pieces of evidence (news reports and a court decision) that I cover in my article. How could NPR and seasoned journalists and editors not do their homework? What was going on? I began working on my critique right away. After I retired from paid employment, I made better progress researching and assembling my critique."

About his interest in fraud, he told me: "All my adult life, I have been keenly interested in how we learn to think about our minds (given that each of us experiences only one). This led to my studying philosophy, working in human services and writing my 1993 article, Formation of the Concept of Mind. About 10 years ago, the housing crash and financial crisis naturally exposed many Ponzi schemes and other instances of fraud. The evidence was clear that many people had no clue how another person could be defrauding them. The sheer extent of the fraud started me focusing on how desperately people needed to learn to think realistically about people and what they were doing (including themselves). So I started tracking the fraud cases I came across in the news and learning what I could from them."

He said he has no personal stake in the story and does not know anyone involved.

His motivation, he said, is "to help people understand why fraud happens and what we can do to limit it. I hope NPR and journalism schools will use my article to improve training and ethical behavior of journalists. I hope my article will help listeners and readers become better consumers of news. And beyond that, I hope the article will help all of us to think more realistically about ourselves and others."

-E.J.

All along, he said, "we should be able to point to the facts. You don't want to be in the position of having people question the real meaning of the story or the conclusions you're trying to get to or the science you're trying to explore because the facts are incorrect."

Gudenkauf told me the errors in the timeline did not negate the validity of the story. "I think that the fraudulent scheme that Toby got enmeshed in or executed, because of the financial problems that existed and grew in his company, happened in a very tight period of time," she said. The time frame (parts of which were one year or three years earlier than the report said) is "discrete enough," that, "what we said about him is substantially correct."

And she said the underlying premise of the story stands: "People do not see fully what they are doing when they are doing it."

Spiegel added: "The concept of cognitive biases and the ways we cannot see our own behavior is not in question."

The science discussed in the story may indeed stand (I have not investigated the current research) but I don't agree that the story does. As Vanderveen argues, at great length, a different presentation of the story and some healthy skepticism about what Groves told them (including comments about his father that the journalists could not verify because the father was dead) could easily have led them to a different end point.

Another part of Vanderveen's argument involves the storytelling technique used by the journalists themselves, as they encouraged listeners and readers to consider their own unethical acts, taking the focus off Groves. I won't lay out Vanderveen's entire argument here (or get into a separate issue he raises of how the journalists characterized the research), but what it boils down to, in his opinion, is that the journalists could have avoided the errors had they stayed focused on the inconsistencies in Groves' story, instead of seeking out the ways in which his story was relatable to the listener.

"It's not good for journalists, or for listeners and readers, in any context, to just identify with someone and turn off your brain," he said.

I'd put it a different way. If there's a moral of the story here, it's that age-old foundational concept drilled into every journalist from Day One: Be skeptical. If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.

The second moral is for NPR's listeners and readers: If you see a mistake in a story, speak up right away. Reputable news organizations make corrections (as NPR is doing now). NPR posts a running list of them on NPR.org. But the newsroom can't correct errors of which they are unaware.

Vanderveen told me he never considered contacting NPR at the time he discovered the errors (in 2012), so they could immediately be corrected. Referring to comments posted on the NPR website after the initial story, he wrote in an email: "Some commenters on NPR's website touched directly upon the journalists' unethical behavior and some complained that the journalists were excusing unethical behavior. Their comments did not lead NPR to correct the story. I am not inclined to make impromptu comments or complaints. I wanted to get my facts straight and have a broader picture of what was going on. The unethical journalism ran deep in this story, I felt."

Gudenkauf told me she does not recall seeing those comments and that typically, if a request for correction is made, "we would look into it."

Vanderveen subsequently told me this week that he is pleased about the corrections. Still, had he written immediately, the piece probably would not have been rebroadcast without significant changes, or might not even have been rebroadcast at all. NPR also would have made corrections to the original story much earlier.

One other point about corrections: I am happy to report on a change that took place at the end of January: A link to the Corrections list is now prominently displayed at the bottom of the NPR.org home page.

Previously, as I wrote in September, it was buried at the bottom of the page (the "footer") in an "About" drop-down link that was too difficult to find. Patrick Cooper, director of Web and engagement, told me the change was partly because "too many of our users were unaware of the footer dropdowns." The new design will be rolled out to most other NPR.org pages at the end of February, he said.

Finally, some NPR listeners and readers who are reading this may be concerned about the possibility of similar errors creeping into current work. I can report that the three-year-old Invisibilia, for one, hires outside fact-checkers in addition to an internal fact-checking team. All scripts go through both sets of fact-checkers, as well as the legal department and Memmott (who was not in his current standards and practices role in 2012).

He told me, "I am hoping this kind of thing would not happen again."