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Podcast: When Those We Report On Complain

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Any good reporter takes requests for corrections very seriously, and the stakes are especially high for investigative journalists like ProPublica’s Justin Elliott.

So when he and his reporting partners, Jesse Eisinger and NPR’s Laura Sullivan, received a lengthy list of complaints from the Red Cross about our past coverage of the charity, they checked them out, he tells ProPublica Assistant Managing Editor Eric Umansky in this week’s podcast.

In the end, the reporters stood by their “scrupulously fair” work – which was itself the product of much back and forth with the Red Cross before publication last year.

Umansky says they were well-served by employing the “no-surprises school of journalism,” giving a shout-out to Mark Schoofs, a former ProPublica editor now at Buzzfeed. “You can cause sources to be enraged, to be sad,” Umansky says, but “they should never be surprised by what you publish.”

“That’s not always a fun or comfortable thing to do,” he continues, “but it is both the right thing to do and almost inevitably, in my experience, has been helpful in terms of the story.”

Case in point: During the original reporting, the Red Cross provided evidence to rebut certain claims made by other sources, Elliott says, and the stories reflected that.

Fast-forward to the current complaints, which the reporters and editors received months after the original stories and determined were unfounded. In some cases, they found, the Red Cross' responses were misleading or simply incorrect. “They said we had failed to include a quote about fruitful cooperation between the Red Cross and Occupy Sandy,” Elliott says, “and one of the quotes that they say we had failed to include is actually in fact in the story.”

In the end, the time and effort of publishing the complaints and our responses were worth it, Umansky says: “Simply put, some of their mischaracterizations were themselves newsworthy -- worthy of letting readers know, this is the interaction that we’ve had.”

Still, it’s a decision that must be made case by case.

Elliott recalls an interaction with Donald Trump during his time writing for several years ago. In one story, he posited that Trump was merely “riding this wave of free publicity” in his latest presidential run and would drop out of the race before certain financial disclosure requirements kicked in. That way, he could avoid answering the recurring questions: “How rich is he really, what are his real assets,” Elliott says. “He keeps that very close to the vest.”

Afterward, he got a personal response from Trump – well, sort of. (And yes, the Donald did drop out.) Hear all about it on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher, or read our point-by-point refutation of the Red Cross’s claims.

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