In the wake of criticism of an NPR story on conversion therapy, NPR’s ombudsman and a top news official have responded to the critiques.
Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos, wading into what is likely the first of many controversies involving LGBT issues as the new Ombudsman, said the story was well-done, but that critics had reason to complain:
To be fair, to lay it all out is far too complicated in a single, 9-minute radio segment. Spiegel and Gudenkauf were trying to give an insight, a compelling slice of two lives that was fascinating story-telling that hinted at some of the answers. They say they may dive deeper in future stories.
But listeners are right to demand that even this story somehow should have addressed the substance of the divisions over conversion therapy. The one attempt to provide that context in the story – an interview with a psychologist – failed to do so.
and this is how he concluded:
Spiegel and Gudenkauf clearly worked hard on this story. They simply made some wrong assumptions about what most of us know about sexuality and conversion. I can understand why they did so. On many stories, in defiance of standard journalism practices, I am often the first to say that reporters should assume more about the what the audience knows. The good thing about this subject is that Spiegel and Gudenkauf will have many more opportunities to return to it.
This is an interesting observation. It also says something about the issue itself. While many of the criticisms of the story surrounded the question of whether there was even a “debate,” in fact may listeners may not have even understood the issue at all to put that in context.
Schumacher-Matos also hit on a criticism about not explaining the financial and professional interest of the subjects who were interviewed.
Responding to another criticism from listeners, 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.
Margaret Low Smith, the acting Senior Vice President for news, also responded to the criticism:
Nonetheless, we could have done a better job on this story. Though we stated at the end of the piece that conversion therapy harms gay people and people who find it beneficial are very rare, we should have addressed those questions earlier and in greater detail so that listeners could hear the stories of Rich Wyler and Peterson Toscano with that context in mind.
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. Though some therapists disagree with that mainstream view, it has been widely held for many years.
Finally, we should have mentioned in the story that both of the men profiled – in the wake of their therapy – organized their professional lives around their respective experiences and profit from their activities.