Updated June 27, 2019: This column has been revised to reflect changes to the correction on the initial story, and to remove material that has not been independently substantiated. To be clear, if it wasn't from some of the previously included materials, there was only one criminal case against Toby Groves — with two charges — that concluded in a guilty plea and sentencing in 2008, as reported in the story.
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.
His concerns prompted NPR's newsroom to take a second look at the piece in question: "Psychology Of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things." 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 newsroom subsequently corrected the story, and based on that correction, I wrote this column. (I do not work in the newsroom and their corrections work is separate from mine, which is to make sure listener and reader concerns are heard by the news staff and to make NPR's journalism accountable and transparent.) Now we are once again taking another look back and this column has been updated. Since the correction and the column were published, we've realized that while Vanderveen raised good questions, some assertions he made are disputable or have not been independently substantiated.We have removed them from the column. That said, what isn't in dispute is that NPR could have done a better job fact-checking or explaining the facts of at least two elements of the story.
The subject of the story was Toby Groves, an Ohio man who committed multimillion-dollar bank fraud. He was caught and charged with one count of bank fraud and one count of tax evasion; he eventually pleaded guilty to both charges as part of a plea deal to resolve the case. 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. As it turns out, NPR didn't explain his story well enough. The reporters chose to focus on a particular date in the timeline of his story as the "first lie." The court records, however, included allegations from prosecutors that some of his actions that led to the prosecution pre-dated the date chosen by the reporters.
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 in February 2018 NPR added the needed corrections, including an insert to the audio of the podcast that directs listeners to the online correction.
That correction has now been corrected.
The new correction reads:
Feb. 14, 2018
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 20, 2003." In addition, court records show he was ordered to pay the federal Internal Revenue Service $299,997 after pleading guilty to tax evasion as part of the fraud scheme.
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 illustrations also showed a fictional newspaper with a front-page headline reading 'Toby Groves Found Guilty Of Bank Fraud.' To be clear, Groves' guilty plea was never front-page news.
The details about others in this report — including researchers Lamar Pierce, Francesca Gino and Ann Tenbrunsel — are not in question.
Update on June 27, 2019: This correction has been edited to note that court records show Groves admitted he began the "scheme" to defraud banks "on or about June 20, 2003," not June 30, 2003. Also, it has been edited to make clear that he was ordered to pay $299,977 to the Internal Revenue Service and to clarify that the illustration of a fictional "Daily Paper" with the headline "Toby Groves Found Guilty Of Bank Fraud" does not depict an actual front page.
Update on July 22, 2019: Under the headline "The Psychology of Fraud with Toby Groves, Ph.D. — Story Clarification," Groves writes about how this story has become a "popular case study for professionals and researchers alike in the areas of ethics and decision-making." And he offers an explanation for "why the 2004 date would be used to start the story and be identified as the 'first lie.'"
The account of the "front-page" newspaper story about Groves' brother 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 absence of a reference to Groves' admission that the scheme began in 2003, however, poses 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 the dates of actions alleged in the court records were earlier than the moment described in the story as his "first lie." It's not clear why the reporters left that information out of the timeline.
I have turned up no evidence that shows the errors were intentional, as Vanderveen asserted. But Spiegel, Joffe-Walt and Anne Gudenkauf, an editor who oversaw the 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" 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; she no longer has access to NPR email and the notes she has "are not helpful in this regard." She added, "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 the complaint, said the information "was all there to be fairly easily found."
Memmott 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."
Editor Gudenkauf told me the issues concerning 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 earlier than the report said) is "discreet 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."
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 heard about the story (in 2012). Referring to comments posted on the NPR website after the initial story [NPR no longer supports commenting on its website], he wrote in an email: "Some commenters on NPR's Web site 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."
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."
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."