NPR Admits Some Mistakes, Stops Short of Apology
BY Lucas Grindley
August 04 2011 7:05 PM ET
The NPR journalists whose report this week portrayed the merits of conversion therapy as up for debate are now admitting they made mistakes.
Morning Edition aired a report Monday that featured an interview with Rich Wyler, founder of an organization promoting "ex-gay" therapy, and Peterson Toscano, who says the therapy was mentally damaging. NPR health reporter Alix Spiegel and her editor, Anne Gudenkauf, claim that even if they wrongfully gave equal weight to both men's arguments at the start of the piece, the facts were made clear eventually.
"We did not label Mr. Wyler as the minority experience and Mr. Toscano as the majority until late in the piece," they conceded to the NPR ombudsman, who wrote a column posted today on the ensuing outrage.
But what the journalists are referring to is a single sentence of fuzzy math that concluded the nine-minute story. Spiegel had summed up the piece by proclaiming, "For every Wyler, there are dozens of gay men and women who will struggle through a process that asks them to annihilate a part of themselves."
They did not explain to the ombudsman where the estimate comes from that one in "dozens" will benefit from so-called reparative therapy. Instead, they said their mistake was assuming that listeners "would not need to have this spelled out" from the outset.
"We believed that our listeners are well informed about [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] issues and thus would not need to have this spelled out at the start of the story," they said. "But after hearing some of the reaction we got, we feel like placing this information in the beginning of the piece rather than the end, would have better served our listeners."
No one in the ombudsman's piece apologizes for the presentation, as they were called on to do by Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, in a guest op-ed posted by The Advocate earlier this week.
NPR's acting senior vice president for news, Margaret Low Smith, comes the closest.
"The story needed much more context," she is quoted as saying in the ombudsman's column. "We should have put the whole idea of conversion therapy into perspective. Not doing so meant the listener had no data to understand how common this practice is and how many people seek it out. The absence of context undercut the value of our reporting."
In a separate statement, Smith added that the story miscommunicated a central point.
"We also unintentionally left the impression with some listeners that the establishment psychological community only began to discount conversion therapy in the last few years," Smith said. "Though some therapists disagree with that mainstream view, it has been widely held for many years."
The fact that Wyler profits as the founder of People Can Change by offering reparative therapy was also not added for context in the original story. The NPR journalists say they should have mentioned it but that the information wouldn't have mattered.
The ombudsman said, "Spiegel and Gudenkauf acknowledge that they should have reported on air that Wyler founded an organization that claims to help men who have same-sex attraction to change. But they said that Toscano, too, profits from his experience, writing a play and giving speeches about it."
The journalists said that, in their judgment, both men are sincere.
"We don't think that they believe what they do about their experiences because they are now active on these topics," Spiegel and Gudenkauf told the ombudsman. "Rather they are active because of what they experienced and believe."
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