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: