NPR, Ombudsman Differ On S. Dakota Indian Foster Care Series NPR's ombudsman has found serious failings in the network's 2011 investigative series on South Dakota's foster care system for Native American children. NPR has admitted some shortcomings but stands by the findings of the series.

NPR, Ombudsman Differ On S. Dakota Indian Foster Care Series

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An NPR investigative series that appeared in the fall of 2011 on this program, reported on the state of South Dakota and its treatment of Native American children. The report said the state separated the children from their families and tribes at an alarming rate. The series won national awards, and helped inspire federal and state reviews of such policies. This network's ombudsman has now concluded the series was fundamentally flawed.

As NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik explains, the ombudsman and NPR have split sharply over his findings.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The series was reported over a series of months by correspondent Laura Sullivan. It presents a wrenching tale in South Dakota. American Indians make up 15 percent of the state's population. But as Sullivan told listeners in October 2011, they account for more than half the children in foster care.


LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's not hard to find them. There are thousands of them - Native Americans with missing children.

TANYA HILL: Well, my name is Tanya Hill, from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. I lost nine grandchildren through the Department of Social Services.


FOLKENFLIK: NPR told listeners that state authorities appeared to be ignoring federal law requiring them to do everything possible to place Native American foster children with relatives, or other Native American families. They did so partly, NPR reported, because of cultural biases.

Some listeners and conservative commentators complained. Edward Schumacher-Matos also started to hear from state officials as well. He is NPR's ombudsman, paid to critique its news coverage.

EDWARD SCHUMACHER-MATOS: What struck me was how the facts - the basic facts, like budget facts and numbers - were so different from what was being reported in the NPR series. That kind of cried for an investigation.

FOLKENFLIK: Starting in earnest at the outset of 2012, Schumacher-Matos found a series of failings. As NPR reported, more than eight of 10 Native American children in South Dakota assigned to foster homes were placed with white families. It also alleged a motive. Again, here's Sullivan.


SULLIVAN: But a close review of South Dakota's budget shows there's a financial incentive at work. Every time a state puts a child in foster care, the federal government sends money. Because South Dakota is poor, it sends lots of money - almost $100 million a year.

FOLKENFLIK: As Schumacher-Matos found, and NPR News now acknowledges, that figure doesn't bear up to scrutiny. Additionally, Schumacher-Matos decided the perspective of state officials was not adequately reflected in the piece. While the officials ultimately refused to cooperate with NPR, the network should have worked harder to represent them fairly, he says.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: The more I kept looking, I saw that there was a lot of missing context that should have been there. And finally, we didn't have response from the state on so many key points in the series.

FOLKENFLIK: And all of that added up, in your mind, to what?

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: It added up to a deeply flawed report that shouldn't have aired as it was.

FOLKENFLIK: He wrote an exhaustive, 80-page report, filed late Friday. NPR News executives declined to be interviewed for this story, pointing instead to the response they posted online. NPR Chief Content Officer Kinsey Wilson, and Senior Vice President for News Margaret Low Smith, say NPR should have included far more documentary support for its assertions online, and taken greater care to reflect the position of state officials. But that said, the network stands by the thrust of Sullivan's reporting.

Kelly McBride is a senior ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalistic school in Saint Petersburg, Fla., and she's served as an ombudsman for ESPN. She says Schumacher-Matos wanted NPR to produce a different story about the full crisis besetting Native American families, rather than simply critique the story it broadcast.

KELLY MCBRIDE: And in a way, I think it sets up an unfair challenge to NPR because if he wants to do a column about why they chose this story instead of that story, then he should do that column. But he essentially does both, in this very long report.

FOLKENFLIK: McBride argues that it's hard to tell whether the weight of his critique is warranted by the mistakes committed by NPR, in this case.

MCBRIDE: It's very possible, in an investigative story, to get certain facts wrong but still have the overall truth be quite accurate. And I'm not saying that as an excuse because when that happens, it's incredibly unfortunate - and even irresponsible, on the part of journalists.

FOLKENFLIK: McBride compared this critique to the treatment given to one of journalism's most notorious fabricators.

MCBRIDE: But when you've got 30,000 words, that's pretty significant. I mean, that, I think, is more than everything that The New York Times wrote about Jayson Blair. And if you look at what Jayson Blair did, that was obviously much more egregious.

FOLKENFLIK: NPR's Wilson and Smith say Schumacher-Matos' lengthy exchanges with state officials impeded the ability of reporters to get more answers. But Schumacher-Matos says he decided to approach this story as a case study in how NPR offers investigative findings in a narrative form.

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: It's too easy to let the form get in the way of the substance; that if we're going to do investigative storytelling, we still have to state clearly what it is we have found, and what it is we have not found.

FOLKENFLIK: One disclosure: The top ranks of NPR's news management team recused themselves from the preparation of this story. Smith says the network took a hard look at its stories and simply reached a different conclusion than Schumacher-Matos did.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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