NPR's ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos wrote that the broadcaster practiced "sluggish journalism" by not identifying a source's advocacy group membership in two stories.
The reports, June 29's "Business Owners Mixed on Health Care Ruling," and July 8's "Raising Minimum Wage: A Help or Harm?," both quoted Joe Olivo. Olivo owns a New Jersey printing company and is a member of small business advocacy group, the National Federation of Independent Business, but his NFIB role wasn't disclosed to readers.
According to Schumacher-Matos, the accuracy and fairness of the reports featuring Olivo aren't in question, but that the reporters failed to note Olivo's position.
As MSNBC's Maddow blog reported, Olivo is quoted in stories "pushing a political line from the National Federation of Independent Business, which favors a conservative political agenda." And, while Schumacher-Matos observed it's tricky to determine "how Olivo should be identified," he called for his relationship to NFIB to be disclosed in NPR reports, noting:
"This is a gray area that is a judgment call. Olivo is an active member and a favorite recommendation of the NFIB for interviews, but he is neither an official nor a spokesperson of the organization."
Plus, Schumacher-Matos noted that Olivo "is quoted so often and has had such a public role that he has ceased to be an ordinary small businessperson—at least in terms of public debate."
Ultimately, Schumacher-Matos wrote:
"What we have here is not an ombudsman issue of ethics or standards, but a journalism school issue of good practices and competitive originality. Olivo shouldn't have been interviewed at all."
The reporter for one of the two articles, Yuki Noguchi, "declined to be interviewed" by Schumacher-Matos; Guy Raz, the host of the NPR program that aired the second report, said it was "human error" to interview the same source and that "had we known, we would have searched for another small-businessman." Schumacher-Matos published Raz's "full letter" in response to Schumacher-Matos' inquiry here.
"I believe we made a mistake in including his voice in this piece -- not because of his affiliation with NFIB, but because we always work to offer up voices we hope our listeners will not find elsewhere."
Moving forward, Schumacher-Matos called for journalists to "search harder for new and diverse voices."
We've written to the NFIB for comment and will update with any response.
Hat Tip: Media Matters