An apology: we reported an important story, but failed to communicate clearly with a source

Last month, NCPR reported a story that began with a college freshman’s controversial social media post in Plattsburgh and quickly traced back to her home community in Keene, in the central Adirondacks. Maria Gates posted a joke about “lynching” African Americans.

It was a complicated and tense situation. One of the many people we interviewed to try to understand it better was a high school senior named CorrieAnne Stoner, a friend of Gates, who quickly became a central figure in the public discussion.

Ms. Stoner has since raised questions about our methods and our ethics in telling this story. When she consented to be interviewed, Stoner felt that she would have more opportunities to provide feedback and shape the content of the story.

When journalists hear this kind of criticism, it’s essential to listen, think hard, acknowledge any errors, and make changes where necessary.

Upon review, we think Ms. Stoner is right that our lead reporter, Zach Hirsch, failed to communicate clearly about our approach to reporting this story, our methods and our journalistic intentions. Listening back to recordings of their conversation and to Hirsch’s statements, it’s reasonable that CorrieAnne and her parents expected to have more influence over the report before it aired.

In fact, it is against NCPR’s policy and against standard journalism practices to give sources this kind of oversight of our work. We call people repeatedly to check facts, to understand our sources’ perspectives, and to make sure we’re getting as close to the truth as possible. We did that with Ms. Stoner and with many other people who provided information for Hirsch’s report.

But we never allow anyone to serve as editor of our stories, even in an informal capacity, nor do we give people previews of our reports. This independence is part of what makes our news reports trustworthy. We apologize sincerely for failing to explain this part of our process clearly to Ms. Stoner. Especially with a story like this, involving young people, clear communication with sources is essential. We fell short and we’re sorry.

Despite this significant misstep, we feel the story itself met NCPR’s ethical and professional standards. Put simply, we believe it captured factually and with nuance the tense moment that existed both in Keene and Plattsburgh.

This story was reported and researched carefully by Hirsch over a lengthy period. We were one of the last media outlets in the North Country to talk publicly about the Snapchat controversy, not because we didn’t know about it, but because Hirsch chose to take more time, find more sources, and invest more care and caution in his reporting.

Before the story aired, we also consulted with a diverse team of journalists at NPR who specialize in covering racial issues. We followed their guidance closely. The result is a story we’re proud to have broadcast. We hope those who haven’t yet heard it or read it will do so and draw your own conclusions. We’re eager to hear your feedback.

In the meantime, we will provide our reporting staff with supplemental training and professional re-enforcement, so that our clumsy and misleading communication on this project won’t be repeated. Again, we apologize to Ms. Stoner. On this important point which she raised, we promise to do better.

NCPR News Department:
Martha Foley
David Sommerstein
Brian Mann
Zach Hirsch
Lauren Rosenthal

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4 Comments on “An apology: we reported an important story, but failed to communicate clearly with a source”

  1. Pirate Edward Low says:

    Few media sources are willing to be as stand up as this… to be open to addressing mistakes.

    Mistakes can be perceived or opinion, and while those are hard to prove…. but more of the criticisms you have received should be addressed.

    Things as simple as trying to do weather for all of your coverage areas as if it is snowing in Canton, it is snowing everywhere. to more complex issues like the lack of fact-checking on your stories. When I say ‘fact-checking’ I don’t mean what you say here, checking your work, but checking the facts of your subjects.

    Examples would be your coverage of the #ny21 representative, her responsiveness (or lack of) to her constituents. Her statements that just don’t pan out (saying she wants scott pruitt to resign but does nothing to move forward). There are many things that representative does that factually is inaccurate, that is not shown by your reporting.

    No doubt about it, this is an issue that I have over critiqued you on, but it isn’t the only issue you either don’t fact-check or you don’t show the fact-checking. it might be #laughable to suggest this… but on this issue and others, I am not the only one pointing it out….

    Even on issues, I agree with your coverage (not just the sense of the issue, but your reporting), like ‘assault weapons’ when people are calling you out on terminology, perhaps the response should not be something akin to: we know what we are doing.


    “When journalists hear this kind of criticism, it’s essential to listen, think hard, acknowledge any errors, and make changes where necessary.”

  2. Naj Wikoff says:

    As a person who has been covering the story for the Lake Placid News about the impact of the Snap Chat that featured Maria Gates’s comment, it’s impact on her hometown Keene, and Stoner and Warner’s recent presentation, I agree with the NCPR team that it’s a complex and challenging topic to cover, and I think they’ve done an excellent job. Kudos for the self-reflection and apology.

    My understanding is CorrieAnne had expected more attention to her stepping in to defend Maria, and remind her community that she’s a good person, that people need to step back and realize that she too has been a victim. Keene has an electronic billboard called Nextdoor Keene, and Gate’s got a lot of harsh criticism and didn’t feel safe about returning home. As we all know, people tend to be very harsh online, which is easy to do in contrast to sitting down with the person and speaking with them eye to eye. CorrieAnne stepping up to defend Maria got people to step back and start considering their own complicity, and the challenges of raising children of color in a very white community and region.

    Keene Central School and the community has stepped up. The school hired a consultant to work with Miles and CorrieAnne, and with the faculty and students. A series of well-attended facilitated forums have been held in the community. All told, well over one-fifth of the population of Keene has been actively engaged in self-reflection, thinking about what they can do on a personal level, and what they can do to address the very real aspects of society that bolster the opportunities for white people over people of color, such as our justice system, tax laws, and voter suppression initiatives.

    They are asking themselves how their community, their churches, their businesses can be more welcoming to people of diversity. The door locks clicking as Miles walks down the main street of Keene are not locks on the car doors of locals, as they all know him, but by visitors to the community. How do we let these people know our communities are safe to visit? Keene is a great place to live, and nobody is more passionate about loving the community than Miles and CorrieAnne. Their goal is to help the community be even better. They had the courage to take the first step and say that we all have hard work to do.

    The larger challenge is that the challenges that Miles and CorrieAnne face are true of the youth of color that live in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Canton, Potsdam, Plattsburgh – in all our communities. We all have a lot of work to do. NCPR’s willingness to step of and review their own actions, mirrors what’s happening in Keene, and needs to happen in other communities throughout our region. Nearly half of New Yorkers are people of color. We don’t see that diversity on the slopes of our ski centers, in hikers in the woods, nor in the visitors who come here. That represents a loss of potential income, but more a lack looking in a mirror and doing the hard work implied.

  3. Ed Blow says:

    Snowflakes snowflakes everywhere!

  4. Richard says:

    To add to mr pirate above. NCPR does not include undisputed Facts that Ny 21 Stefanik does not post her events on her website “schedule” until after the fact. How are voters to know when they can see and meet her?
    When NCPR did a town Hall story they did not have even one Stefanik answer to a question ; an essential part of the story!

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