Too vulgar to print?

The issue of publishing obscenities and vulgarities is back with us. Several recent articles have raised again the question of what kind of language news organizations should allow in their stories.

Last month Jesse Sheidlower, president of the American Dialect Society, declared in a New York Times oped that society has become much more comfortable with vulgarities in recent decades, “but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all.”

Two thoughts from here on the overall vulgarity issue:

First, I’m not sure everyone’s OK with news media keeping up with the latest vulgarities. For instance, if our stories were as laced with things “sucking” as common speech is, readers might find it very tedious very fast.

Second, if the AP news report is any indicator, our use of language once considered unprintable has eased quite a bit. As I noted the other day to Adam Offitzer of the American Journalism Review, a couple of decades ago even “damn” and “hell” were words we thought twice about before putting on our wires. We don’t sweat them much now. (Our Stylebook even specifies official spellings for damn, damn it and goddamn it.)

We’ve used other obscenities, too, when we felt the context of a story really required them. But they deserve some debate before publication: Are they essential to a reader’s understanding of the story, or just casual vulgarity we can leave out? This goes to a valid point Sheidlower makes: if the reader needs to know the specific obscenity used to understand the story, we should convey it one way or another.

Sheidlower noted the common half-way approach to this issue: obscuring part of an obscenity. We do hyphenate in some cases, as when we wrote about the play “The Motherf—– With a Hat.” We’ve also bleeped out obscenities on our audio news services. Example: Joe Biden’s comment at the Affordable Care Act signing ceremony that the law is “a big fucking deal.” Even with hyphens and bleeps, there’s no mystery to readers what we have in mind.

But why bother with hyphens and bleeps at all?

We believe most AP subscribers — web and mobile news sites, broadcasters and newspapers — still want certain obscenities obscured. It’s also our own opinion that loading up our services with gratuitous obscenities cheapens our work and is of service to no one.

Certainly this issue will evolve, at the AP and elsewhere. We try to keep close to our subscribers’ preferences. The New York Times recently adjusted its vulgarity standards. In the view of its public editor, Margaret Sullivan, “The new language strikes me as a good move. It keeps the standards high but may help journalists avoid having to twist themselves into knots when writing about the title of a book or web site, or quoting a public official.”

Maintaining high standards, while still communicating clearly, is what we all should aim for.

Pruitt: ‘Journalists today are targeted’

Three days after the killing of an Associated Press photojournalist and the wounding of an AP correspondent in Afghanistan, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt today decried attacks against journalists in remarks delivered at a press conference in New York:Gary Pruitt

A free press is the backbone of any country that calls itself a democracy. And yet around the world those whose mission it is to shine a light on power are increasingly under attack. Once regarded as the impartial eyes and ears of the world, journalists today are targeted in an attempt to influence and control the news.

Sometimes they are literally prevented from gathering news – deported, detained or even imprisoned. Other times, government officials and courts work in secrecy to block access to information that the public has a right – and need – to know. And, tragically, sometimes journalists are intentionally murdered in an effort to prevent news from being reported or to intimidate others who passionately believe in the mission of journalism.

As many of you surely know, AP suffered a tragic loss last Friday when photographer Anja Niedringhaus was targeted and killed while covering the run-up to the elections in Afghanistan. AP, and her legion of fans around the world, are mourning her loss. Kathy Gannon, her AP colleague, was seriously wounded.

Anja’s death, the detention of journalists worldwide and the growing secrecy of governments nearly everywhere make our responsibility to bear witness to history more challenging and more dangerous than ever. But also more important. AP abhors the trend of targeting journalists and will always champion the right for all journalists to work without fear in bringing vital information to light for all the world.

The press conference, involving Pruitt and leaders of other news organizations, preceded an evening symposium at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism — co-hosted by the Dart CenterColumbia Global Centers / Middle East and the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and Information Project – focused on the imprisonment of four Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt.

Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed today marked their 100th day behind bars. Abdullah Al Shamy has been held more than six months. They are among 20 defendants being tried on charges of belonging to and aiding a terrorist organization for their coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood. They have pleaded not guilty.

Q&A: How we localized flood insurance investigation for states and small towns

For many years, the federal government offered subsidized flood insurance on homes and businesses constructed before there were many rules about building close to the water. But premiums have been insufficient to cover the payouts, leaving the National Flood Insurance Program billions of dollars in debt. There has been public outcry over some actions taken in Congress to support the program.

The west branch of the Susquehanna River flows past Jersey Shore, Pa. on Sunday March 23, 2014. About a third of the borough (population 4,300) is in a flood hazard zone and nearly 470 homes in town are expected to see flood insurance premium hikes because of changes to the National Flood Insurance Program. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

The west branch of the Susquehanna River flows past Jersey Shore, Pa. on Sunday March 23, 2014. About a third of the borough (population 4,300) is in a flood hazard zone and nearly 470 homes in town are expected to see flood insurance premium hikes because of changes to the National Flood Insurance Program. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

The Associated Press today published an important investigative project by reporter David B. Caruso that details how rising flood insurance premiums across the country will have devastating, long-term impact on many homeowners and communities. Caruso’s report was distributed along with an interactive and AP sidebars from each of the 50 states.

In addition, data shared by AP with member news organizations – such as the New Haven Register and The News Journal (Delaware) – helped them to further localize their coverage.

“This report is a great example of how AP can work with its members and clients to help them produce exclusive, highly local stories that can’t be found elsewhere,” said Brian Carovillano, managing editor for U.S. news. “Going forward, many of our data-driven investigations will include national and state reporting from AP journalists, and our content partners around the country can provide local perspective using data gathered, formatted and distributed by AP.”

Here, National Investigative Editor Rick Pienciak describes how AP tackled the ambitious reporting, which includes data on more than 18,000 communities across the country.

National Investigative Editor Rick Pienciak

National Investigative Editor Rick Pienciak (AP Photo)

What prompted AP to explore this issue?
David Caruso, who has written a great deal about post-Superstorm Sandy insurance issues, proposed looking at the big rate hikes in store for 1.1 million participants in the National Flood Insurance Program, 20 percent of all participants. We figured we could perform a nice public service for a large number of people – in all 50 states.

What were the most striking findings and concerns?
For one, we learned that the public outcry was so strong against the 2012 law to make everyone start paying true-risk premiums (increases as much as 15-fold), that Congress might push back some of those increases, many of which had started to take effect in October. In fact, compared to the usual speed of Congress, a bill was passed by the House and the Senate earlier this month, spreading out the increases. And President Barack Obama signed the bill on Friday. (It is worth noting there are congressional elections in November.)

Instead of paying the full rate immediately, depending on the type of property, those impacted will face annual increases of up to 18 percent or a mandatory 25 percent. In analyzing the data for more than 18,000 communities, we were taken aback by the impact these premium increases will have – even spread out over years – on small, old river towns. The numbers help tell the story that some of these places might very well turn into ghost towns.

What challenges did you face?
One of the biggest challenges was distributing a large amount of data for so many communities. First, we had to decide what to use and what to skip from the Federal Emergency Management Agency data because it wasn’t relevant. And, as anyone who has ever worked with a large, complicated data set might say, “messy” is an understatement. So David, AP’s top data guru Troy Thibodeaux and I spent a great deal of time talking through what we would use, how we’d use it and then those fellows spent a lot more time “cleaning” the data and getting it ready for distribution.

One other challenge was the need to distribute the data ahead of time, via a password-protected FTP site, and then prepare our national piece and our state sidebars – one for every state and the District of Columbia – all without knowing exactly when the president would sign the bill to ease the rates of increase. He did so Friday, so we were able to update each story just before they actually hit the wire. We also fielded countless emails and phone calls from member editors and offered them assistance on using the data. Being able to present this package just a couple of days after the president signed the bill is a big accomplishment.

What did AP offer member newspapers to localize this story?
We offered 28 columns of key data for 18,423 separate towns, cities or unincorporated sections of counties. That is a lot of information.

We provided a unique identifying number for each entity, its name, location by county and state, population, number of policies receiving rate discounts, the number of policyholders facing annual increases of up to 18 percent, the number of policies facing annual increases of 25 percent (that category is generally for vacation homes and businesses).

We also provided the percent of all flood insurance policies in each community facing premium increases. Just from that information, a local reporter can get a really good idea of little towns where large chunks of the citizens are going to face hard times until Congress comes up with a long-term fix.

We provided data state by state, and by type of structure (a business, residential home or 2-to-4-family building). And then there were columns for claim history, numbers of active policies in each community, the total annual premium in a community, total payments since the community joined the federal insurance program and total number and dollar amounts of claims paid out to each respective community. Local reporters could really dig in deep and write their own stories about their town or city, regardless of size.

Deep source reporting pays off big

There are endless ways for politicians to hint about whether they will or won’t run for a particular office, but only a few ways to pin them down before they announce their plans.

Boston-based political reporter Steve Peoples (AP photo)

AP political reporter Steve Peoples (AP photo)

In a memo to staff, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano describes how Boston-based politics reporter Steve Peoples delivered an exclusive, deeply sourced story last week that former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who was defeated in 2012, was seeking to hire staff and launch an exploratory committee for a New Hampshire Senate campaign:

The key was finding operatives who had been offered positions, and Peoples did. Working more sources, Peoples was able to report that Brown had told state Republican leaders that he would be announcing a formal exploratory committee.

The developments, reported exclusively for hours by The Associated Press, have implications, both locally, for the 2014 Senate race, and nationally, in the battle for control of Congress. Brown’s bid puts New Hampshire in play as a state where Republicans could take a seat away from the Democrats and take control of the Senate and the entire Congress the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Brown’s camp did not want Peoples to break the news.

That didn’t stop Peoples from digging further.

He had been following Brown’s flirtations with office-seeking for three years since joining the AP, had interviewed several sources who told him about Brown seeking a campaign staff. He then tracked down people who were offered positions, even though Brown’s camp told him there had been no such outreach.

Broadening the circle with more calls and with help from Concord statehouse reporter Norma Love and correspondent Rik Stevens who contacted GOP legislative leaders, Peoples got high-level Republicans to confirm on background that Brown had told them he would form an exploratory committee.

Peoples continued reporting and seeking sources to confirm the information. Brown confirmed the AP report nearly 24 hours later, but by then, Carovillano noted, it was old news. He wrote:

Politico, ABC, CBS and Fox (where Brown was still working as a commentator) all credited AP with breaking the story. The New York Times and the Washington Post both posted Peoples’ story for hours.

For providing our customers with an only-from-AP newsbreak on a big state political story with likely ramifications for the national political scene, Peoples is awarded this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Follow Peoples on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sppeoples and learn more about how AP’s national politics team endeavors to break news, while providing clarity and crucial context.

Datelines from Crimea

We’ve been asked whether, with the Russian takeover of Crimea, we will change our style for datelines from Crimean cities.

Previously, we wrote “SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP).” But Ukraine no longer controls Crimea, and AP datelines should reflect the facts on the ground.

Therefore, effective this week, we are using the city name and “Crimea”: “SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (AP).”

Why not “SEVASTOPOL, Russia” if Russia formalizes its annexation of the territory? The reason is that Crimea is geographically distinct from Russia; they have no land border. Saying just the city name and “Crimea” in the dateline, even in the event of full annexation, would be consistent with how we handle geographically separate parts of other countries. For instance, we just say “Sicily” and “Sardinia” in datelines — “PALERMO, Sicily (AP)” — even though they are part of Italy, and “Guadeloupe” in datelines even though that island is part of France.

What does it take to cover big-time sports?

Ferrara_Lou

AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara

So you want to be a sports writer? Start with a hunger for news.

That was the message AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara delivered to aspiring journalists gathered at the College Media Association’s Spring National Convention in New York on Thursday.

Ferrara, fresh from leading AP’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, stressed the importance of strong newsgathering skills and explained how news reporting underpins stories from the slopes and the skating rink:

“When I look in the very near past at the Sochi games, the sports and events themselves were almost a backdrop to the bigger story. Russia. Vladimir Putin. Security. Pussy Riot. Gay rights. Construction problems. Ukraine. And then there were other threads that got more attention than the game stories we wrote: Accessibility for the disabled. A worker hit by a bobsled. A malfunctioning Olympic ring that the world saw but Russians did not. How the IOC restricts athlete endorsements during the games. Or, how social media is part of the fabric of an Olympian’s celebrity.”

Ferrara also highlighted the accomplishments of a number of AP journalists, including a Texas Statehouse reporter who has carved out a niche beat covering Lance Armstrong (though he’s never gone to the Tour de France), a London-based sports editor who regularly breaks news about the International Olympic Committee and a sports writer covering Penn State who ensured AP was the first news agency to accurately report when Joe Paterno had died.

As a manager, Ferrara said he’s looking for smart reporters “who can identify a news story when they see it happening around the sport they are covering.”

Read his full remarks, including tips for being the next great sports writer, on the Poynter Institute’s website.

AP honored with First Amendment Award

The Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) honored The Associated Press for defending a robust free press with its challenge to the U.S. Department of Justice for secretly seizing AP phone records.

Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, receiving the First Amendment Award for The Associated Press from RTDNF Chair Vince Duffy, during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12,  2014. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Gary Pruitt, the president and CEO of The Associated Press, receiving the First Amendment Award for AP from RTDNF Chair Vince Duffy, during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt, a First Amendment attorney, accepted the award at a black-tie event Wednesday evening in Washington emceed by Chris Wallace of Fox News.

A video narrated by “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer recounted how AP’s industry leadership this past year resulted in greater protections for all journalists.

“Because of the AP-DOJ dispute the rules protecting journalists from the reach of federal prosecutors improved swiftly and substantially,” Pruitt said.

He added: “The Department of Justice made clear, for the very first time, that they will not prosecute a journalist for doing his or her job.”

Watch a video of Pruitt’s remarks and read the AP news story.

 Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, with members of the Associated Press staff during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12,  2014. Posing from left to right Dave Gwizdowski, Sally Buzbee, Ivett Chicas, Sara White, Larry Price, John Turell, Pruitt, Karen Kaiser, Ted Bridis, Denise Vance and Julie Pace. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)


Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of The Associated Press, with members of the AP staff during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12, 2014. Posing from left to right Dave Gwizdowski, Sally Buzbee, Ivett Chicas, Sara White, Larry Price, John Turell, Pruitt, Karen Kaiser, Ted Bridis, Denise Vance and Julie Pace. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Visit AP at SXSW Interactive

The Associated Press is joining thousands of digital and creative professionals from around the world converging at the 2014 SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, which runs March 7 through 11.  Here’s a rundown of where you’ll find AP:

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

Saturday, March 8

Sunday, March 9

  • AP Social Media Editor Eric Carvin (@EricCarvin) and Mandy Jenkins, managing editor for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, will discuss the responsibilities news organizations have to citizen journalists. The session will cover topics such as credits and permissions for user-generated content and working with amateurs who may find themselves reporting in dangerous circumstances. Follow along on Twitter with hashtag: #UGCEthics.  12:30-1:30 p.m., Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD.
  • And AP is sponsoring the Film + Interactive Fusion Party, which brings together filmmakers, designers, social media experts, producers and more. Featuring a DJ, games, photo booth and more, the party is open to all Interactive, Film, Gold and Platinum badge holders. 7-10 p.m., Palm Door, 508 East 6th St.

The Oscar for best selfie goes to …

Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres granted The Associated Press the rights for the editorial use of her star-studded selfie by AP members and subscribers.

AP reported that the photo had been retweeted more than 2 million times, breaking a record set by President Barack Obama with the picture of him hugging First Lady Michelle Obama after his re-election in 2012.

An alternate view of Ellen DeGeneres' star-studded selfie: DeGeneres takes a photo with, from left, Kevin Spacey, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jared Leto during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles.  (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

An alternate view of Ellen DeGeneres’ star-studded selfie: DeGeneres takes a photo with, from left, Kevin Spacey, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jared Leto during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

Recalling Vietnam’s ‘Real War’

Longtime Associated Press correspondent Peter Arnett remembered that journalists were “rarely unwelcomed” by the American soldiers fighting the Vietnam War. After all, AP stories were being clipped from hometown newspapers and mailed by family members to the men in the field.

AP journalist Kimberly Dozier, left, leads a discussion of Vietnam War photography and news coverage at New York's 92nd Street Y, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett, center, and author Pete Hamill, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. Hamill wrote the foreword for AP's photo book "Vietnam: The Real War." (AP Photo)

AP journalist Kimberly Dozier, left, leads a discussion of Vietnam War photography at New York’s 92d Street Y, with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett, center, and author Pete Hamill, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. (AP Photo)

Panelists sign copies of the AP book "Vietnam: The Real War" after a forum at New York's 92nd Street Y on photography and media coverage of the war, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. From left are Pete Hamill, author of the book's foreword; AP national security journalist Kimberly Dozier and former AP Saigon journalist Peter Arnett, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage. (AP Photo)

Panelists sign copies of the AP book “Vietnam: The Real War” after a forum at New York’s 92d Street Y on photography and media coverage of the war, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014. From left are Pete Hamill, author of the book’s foreword; AP journalist Kimberly Dozier and former AP journalist Peter Arnett, who received a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage. (AP Photo)

As Arnett put it, “We made sure they would never be forgotten.”

Arnett, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his war reporting, was onstage Thursday evening at New York’s 92d Street Y in a discussion of the stories and images gathered in “Vietnam: The Real War,” the AP photographic history published in October by Abrams Books.

Arnett was joined by veteran journalist and author Pete Hamill, who reported from Vietnam as a columnist for the New York Post and wrote the book’s evocative introduction, and AP intelligence writer Kimberly Dozier, who served as moderator and drew on her own experiences working in combat zones.

“The photos became the verifying part of … what was in the story,” Hamill said. So much so, according to Arnett, that he once went to an antiwar rally in Central Park with AP colleague Horst Faas and they saw that some of Faas’ stark images from Vietnam had been enlarged for display by the protesters.

Dozier mentioned the challenges she’s had with the Pentagon’s practice of embedding reporters with combat troops, whereas in Vietnam a journalist could simply hop on a military helicopter to the front.

A video of Thursday’s program will be available on the 92d Street Y’s website sometime in the next few weeks.