Why NPR just corrected a 2012 story: Public Editor Explains

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It’s been nearly six years, but there is no expiration date for correcting errors. NPR showed that recently when it tacked on several corrections to a 2012 report that aired in a podcast, radio broadcast and online stories headlined, “Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things.” That story reported on Ohio man Toby Groves, looking at his story through the lens of why people “do bad things.”

NPR reported that after Groves’ brother was sentenced to prison for bank fraud, Groves promised his father he wouldn’t get in trouble. Yet, Groves ended up “sentenced for the exact same crime” of bank fraud about 20 years later. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to “charges that he plotted against and defrauded several financial institutions and falsified his pay on income tax filings.”

What brought NPR’s attention back to this older story? NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen explained that last December her office received the corrections requests from Washington man Paul Vanderveen who published a 13,000-word essay about the errors and issues. Vanderveen told Jensen he found the story interesting but found errors quickly after first hearing NPR’s story. Then, when he retired, he spent more time looking into Groves’ and other fraud cases.

After reviewing Vanderveen’s complaints, NPR launched a two-month investigation and added the corrections. The most significant error, Jensen explained, was in NPR reporting Groves’ 2004 mortgage loan lie was his “first bad act” when in fact Groves began defrauding banks the year earlier and owed the IRS hundreds of thousands of dollars for 2001-2003.

NPR isn’t sure what went wrong, Jensen reported. According to Jensen, the reporters and editor on the most in-depth piece about Groves’ story didn’t know what happened since they “had the information” about Groves’ court records and earlier fraud.

iMediaEthics wrote to Vanderveen to ask if he was satisfied by NPR’s response. Vanderveen blogged his reaction and pointed iMediaEthics to it. Overall, Vanderveen wrote that he was “pleased”‘ by NPR’s response and Jensen’s role and the handling of his complaint, as well as the speed with which NPR did correct after he alerted them to the errors.

“The unethical journalism that I documented in my article (and touched upon in my initial email to NPR) is far more important than specific false claims in the NPR story,” Vanderveen wrote. “We all have the power to curtail unethical journalism and fraud in general by thinking about people instead of identifying with them.”

He continued, “Given all the information in Jensen’s report, as well as the claim in NPR’s correction that other details were ‘not in question,’ which was false, I think that NPR will need more time to come fully to terms with what I’ve written.” Vanderveen noted that he plans to write more in the future about this issue on his blog.

Despite the errors, NPR editor Anne Gudenkauf told Jensen she thinks the story is still valid. Jensen recommended all journalists “be skeptical” and called for all readers to alert news outlets when they spot an error.

NPR’s Feb. 14 correction reads in full:

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.”

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Why NPR Just Corrected a 2012 story

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