Editorials criticize FBI’s impersonation

The FBI’s recent admission that it fabricated an Associated Press story and impersonated an AP reporter during an investigation of bomb threats in the Seattle area continues to generate criticism of the agency’s actions.

USAT1“Catching potential bombers obviously is a good thing, but there are ways to do it without making news operations look like government shills,” USA Today said in an editorial today. “When journalists contact potential sources — whether by phone, e-mail or in person — they need people to trust that they are in fact reporters, not undercover cops.”

WashingtonPost“What was wrong about the Seattle operation was the potential damage to the credibility of the Associated Press by the creation of a false news account by the government and by the impersonation of a reporter,” a Washington Post editorial argued. “The technique threatens to undermine all reporters — not just those from the AP — who seek information from sources and represent themselves truthfully as independent journalists.”

Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer wrote: “Whenever police officers masquerade as journalists, they introduce doubt into the public’s mind about whether the next person purporting to be a journalist is actually a police officer or the stories in the news are really bait set by police.”

In Pennsylvania, The Scranton Times-Tribune Editorial Board said this: “Democracy works only with an independent press that is not controlled by the government. The nation’s Founding Fathers knew that. That’s why, right there in the First Amendment, it says that Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, of the press.

“It doesn’t include a specific prohibition against government agencies impersonating reporters. Perhaps the founders believed that their successors would have the good sense not to jeopardize the independence of the press.

“Recently, however, the FBI has decided to impersonate the press, thus diminishing the press’ separation from the government.”

In an opposing view published by USA Today, former FBI Assistant Director Ronald T. Hosko, now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said the FBI “takes seriously its use of sensitive operations,” adding that in the Seattle investigation “no law was broken, no policy was avoided, nothing was traded away with an ‘ends justify the means’ calculus.”

Meanwhile, AP is awaiting a reply to President and CEO Gary Pruitt’s Nov. 10 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey in which he asked who authorized the investigative tactics in 2007 and sought “assurances that this won’t happen again.”

Editorials also have appeared in The New York Times, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, The Spokesman-Review (in Spokane, Washington), The Repository (in Canton, Ohio) and other newspapers.

AP CEO demands answers from DOJ and FBI

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pruitt spoke on the subject of "Free Press vs. National Security: The False Choice." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Gary Pruitt, President and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Protesting the FBI’s impersonation of an Associated Press reporter, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt today demanded answers from Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey.

In a letter addressed to both men, Pruitt likened the FBI’s impersonation during a 2007 investigation to identity theft and said the move seriously threatens the organization’s ability to gather news.

“In stealing our identity, the FBI tarnishes [AP’s] reputation, belittles the value of the free press rights enshrined in our Constitution and endangers AP journalists and other newsgatherers around the world,” Pruitt wrote. “This deception corrodes the most fundamental tenet of a free press – our independence from government control and corollary responsibility to hold government accountable.”

Pruitt added that the 2007 violation is another case of government overreach, as was the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records, which came to light last year.

Read the AP news story.

AP ‘outraged’ by FBI impersonation

One week after it was reported that the FBI had fabricated an Associated Press story during a 2007 investigation, the bureau’s director has revealed that the agency also impersonated an AP reporter during the probe.

In a letter published today in The New York Times, James B. Comey says: “That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and F.B.I. guidelines at the time.”

As reported by AP, AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll reacted as follows:

“This latest revelation of how the FBI misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press doubles our concern and outrage, expressed earlier to Attorney General Eric Holder, about how the agency’s unacceptable tactics undermine AP and the vital distinction between the government and the press.”

In an earlier letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser had decried the FBI’s forging of the AP story.

Election Day effort continues into Wednesday

Though all the votes have been cast in the U.S. midterm elections, the importance of uncounted ballots looms large in some tight contests as AP journalists and race callers continued today to analyze Election Day results. Highlighting the remaining tasks, AP issued an advisory to its customers in the wee hours of this morning:

Hours later, only the Colorado and Connecticut gubernatorial races had additionally been called.

In all, AP tabulated results for more than 4,500 races last night, and our definitive race calls were cited by our members and customers around the world, from newspapers to major portals to national broadcasters. AP’s vote count also drove conversations on Twitter and Facebook.

U.S. Political Editor David Scott analyzes election results at AP's Washington bureau on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Carvin).

U.S. Political Editor David Scott analyzes election results at AP’s Washington bureau on Nov. 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Carvin).

“I’m always awed to see the AP’s race-calling operation in action and last night was no exception,” said Sally Buzbee, AP’s Washington bureau chief. “The team spends election night watching the vote come in, discussing what the numbers mean and what’s yet to be determined. Our members and customers rely on us on election night to get it first, but first get it right, and we’re thrilled to have delivered for them.”

This mini-documentary produced in AP’s Washington bureau using 15-second Instagram videos gives a peek at how the night unfolded in the newsroom.

Election workers at AP headquarters in New York receive vote tallies from stringers across the U.S. (AP Photo/Emily Leshner)

Election workers at AP headquarters in New York receive vote tallies from stringers across the U.S. (AP Photo/Emily Leshner)

AP decries FBI fabrication of news story

Responding to the news this week that the FBI had fabricated an Associated Press story during a 2007 investigation, the AP expressed serious concern to Attorney General Eric Holder.

“In carrying out this scheme, the FBI both misappropriated the trusted name of The Associated Press and created a situation where our credibility could have been undermined on a large scale,” AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser said in a letter [PDF] delivered to Holder on Thursday.

“Any attempt by the government, whatever its motives, to falsely label its own messages as coming from the news media serves to undermine the vital distinction between the government and the press in society,” Kaiser added. “Such actions also compromise our ability to gather the news safely and effectively in parts of the world where our credibility rests on the basis of AP operating freely and independently.”

Read the AP news story.

Q&A: How AP counts the vote

As votes in the U.S. midterm elections roll in across the country on Nov. 4, it’s The Associated Press that will be counting the results through the evening. The news industry and the public turn to AP, a not-for-profit cooperative, to provide fast and reliable results on national, state and local races and key ballot measures.

Here, Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee, explains why AP plays such a critical role for both the public and the press.

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

How does AP count the vote?
On election night, AP assigns stringers in nearly every county in the U.S., and in towns and cities in New England, to gather vote tallies from county clerks and other officials. They phone in the results to AP vote tabulation centers, where an AP election worker enters the results. Web teams check for election results on county and state sites, and the AP also processes direct feeds of election results in some states from secretaries of state, and from some counties. The returns are filtered through myriad checks and verifications before being transmitted to AP members and customers, and ultimately the public. The results are updated throughout the evening.

AP’s vote count operation, headed by Director of Election Tabulations and Research Don Rehill, is considered by many news organizations to be the definitive source of race results. In fact, formal government announcements of results often don’t come for weeks after an election.

AP election workers count the vote on election night, Nov. 4, 2012 (AP Photo).

AP election workers count the vote on election night, Nov. 4, 2012 (AP Photo).

Who makes the call?
Experienced journalists in each state are responsible for calling races. They’ve got on-the-ground knowledge that no other national news organization can match, as well as detailed data on voting history and demographics. The race callers in each state are assisted by experts in AP’s Washington bureau who examine exit poll numbers and votes as they are counted. A “decision desk” in Washington, overseen by myself and Political Editor David Scott, and headed by David Pace, AP news editor for special projects and elections, has final signoff on all high-profile calls.

When do you make the call?
In states with exit polls, we call top-of-the ticket races at poll close only if we’re confident the leader’s margin is sufficient to overcome any potential error in the exit poll, which is conducted by Edison Research for AP and the broadcast members that make up the National Election Pool (NEP).

In races that we can’t call at poll close, we make the call when we’re convinced that the trailing candidate can’t catch the leader, given the size of the outstanding vote and the voting history of those counties. We never make a call if the margin between the top two candidates is less than the threshold when a state would require a recount.

This is a key detail: AP does not call any race until all the polls in that jurisdiction have closed.

Does speed trump accuracy in the social media age?
Speed has always been important in elections, but AP values accuracy above all else. We’re proud of our long history and well-earned reputation of being the gold standard for election calls. For example, in 2012, AP called 4,653 contested races with a remarkable accuracy rate of 99.9 percent.

Calling races, from the national level to state legislatures, is a vital function AP provides to members and customers. Being able to accurately and quickly call those statewide and state-level races is critical to their ability to provide strong election night coverage for their audiences around the world.

Where can I find AP’s election coverage?
Member newspapers, websites, national and local broadcasters and major portals all carry AP election results, as well as text stories, photos, videos and interactives. The AP Mobile news app features election coverage from AP as well as member newspapers. Our reporting and statistics also drive conversations on social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Does AP tweet results?
The AP and our individual journalists share information that’s already been reported on the wire on Twitter and Facebook, but we don’t break news there. We’re going to share our calls in all races for U.S. Senate and governor from @AP and @AP_Politics on Twitter, but in a way that ensures the calls reach our members and customers first.

Advisory on Ebola coverage

In an advisory to editors at member and customer news organizations, The Associated Press outlined the careful steps it is taking in covering the Ebola story.

EDITORS:

We’re increasingly hearing reports of “suspected” cases of Ebola in the United States and Europe. The AP has exercised caution in reporting these cases and will continue to do so.

Most of these suspected cases turn out to be negative. Our bureaus monitor them, but we have not been moving stories or imagery simply because a doctor suspects Ebola and routine precautions are taken while the patient is tested. To report such a case, we look for a solid source saying Ebola is suspected and some sense the case has caused serious disruption or reaction. Are buildings being closed and substantial numbers of people being evacuated or isolated? Is a plane being diverted? Is the suspected case closely related to another, confirmed Ebola case?

When we do report a suspected case, we will seek to keep our stories brief and in perspective.

The AP

Vetting and coping with violent imagery

From his base in London, International Social Media Editor Fergus Bell leads The Associated Press’ efforts to source and verify user-generated content so that the AP can publish that content across formats.

International Social Media and UGC Editor Fergus Bell (AP Photo).

International Social Media and UGC Editor Fergus Bell (AP Photo).

In a recent Q&A with the Global Editors Network, Bell discussed how AP journalists handle the daily monitoring of violent and graphic imagery when searching for and vetting UGC from conflict areas such as Iraq and Syria.

Bell, who is spearheading an industrywide working group around ethics and user-generated content, underscored the many factors AP weighs when deciding whether to make graphic imagery available to members and customers around the world.

“We never use more than we absolutely need to in order to illustrate the story and we also consider the implications for relatives, and whether we are giving a platform to the people creating this. All of those things are taken into consideration,” he said.

For example, AP last week distributed a video that had been posted online by militants that purportedly shows the Islamic State group fighting in Northern Syria near the town of Kobani on the Turkish border. Because of the proximity to Islamic State group forces we know that the footage itself must have been filmed by militants, Bell said. As is AP’s practice, the source of the video is clearly labeled and AP journalists with expertise in the region were involved in confirming its authenticity.

Some guidance on Ebola and enterovirus coverage

Yesterday we distributed some guidance to our staff on coverage of Ebola and enterovirus, two diseases much in the news.

On Ebola, we said that since the United States now has its first diagnosis of the virus, we’re likely to hear increasingly of “suspected cases” in the U.S. and elsewhere. We should exercise caution over these reports.

Often the fact of an unconfirmed case isn’t worth a story at all. On several occasions already, in the U.S. and abroad, we have decided not to report suspected cases. We’ve just stayed in touch with authorities to monitor the situation.

Considerations in writing about a suspected case might be whether the report has caused serious disruption or public reaction. And, of course, we’d have to have information on the case from a solid source. We should also know how many suspected cases in the country or region involved have turned out, in fact, not to be Ebola.

In the United States, the CDC has — as of now — received about 100 inquiries from states about illnesses that initially were suspected to be Ebola, but after taking travel histories and doing some other work, were determined not to be. Of 15 people who actually underwent testing, only one _ the Dallas patient _ has tested positive.

On enterovirus, currently being reported in parts of the United States, the extent of the outbreak of enterovirus 68 is not clear. As our medical writers have pointed out, it’s not a disease that must be reported, and only very sick patients may be tested for it. Almost all victims are children. Four people infected with the virus have died, but it’s not clear what role the illness played in their deaths.

The germ is not new. It was first identified in 1962 and has caused clusters of illness before, including in Georgia and Pennsylvania in 2009 and Arizona in 2010. It’s possible the bug spread in previous years as much as it has this year, but was never distinguished from illness caused by other germs.

Here is a Q&A we ran Friday on enterovirus. It’s by Mike Stobbe, one of our experts on communicable diseases.

A style note: AP normally does not capitalize the names of diseases, like enterovirus. But when a disease is known by the name of a person or geographical area, we capitalize the proper noun: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Ebola virus (from the Ebola River in Congo).

Q&A: The changing market for video news

The Associated Press today released a report looking at the news market in the Middle East and North Africa and suggesting ways it needs to evolve, particularly when it comes to video. The report is the latest in a series of Deloitte studies for AP into video news consumption globally. (The first covered Europe and the second covered Asia.)

Here, Sue Brooks, director of international products and platforms for AP, explains why the market for video news has never been stronger.

What have been the most striking findings of the reports?

The big “ah-ha” moment for me was the realization that news junkies see video as an essential part of their daily news fix. Although there are a lot of variations in the data across markets, consumers were consistent in their demand for more high-quality online video content – and this is especially true of consumers who are interested in the news, generally.

Sue Brooks

Sue Brooks

The research shows that this group is more likely to access a story if it has an accompanying video, and that video consumers have a higher dwell time on news content each day. When we asked why, people told us it was because video helps bring a story to life and improve their understanding of it. For example, in the Middle East, a massive 83 percent of consumers find this to be the case.

This overwhelming demand for video presents a number of opportunities for us and our customers. It also highlights how critical it is for the industry to adapt. In Europe, more than a quarter of respondents said they’d go elsewhere if video wasn’t available at their preferred news source.

How and why has demand for video news changed?

Video news stopped being the sole preserve of terrestrial and satellite broadcasters quite some time ago and online and mobile video news are now the norm; in fact many of our video customers are now newspapers.

It’s clear that the need for video has continued to grow and has achieved ever-greater importance. We expect this will continue with the spread of smartphones and strong growth in tablets, as well as steadily increasing broadband speeds via fixed and mobile connections.

How is AP helping its customers evolve to satisfy this demand?

The primary goal of the research is to help our customers understand the changes in consumer demand, but it has also given us insight into what we need to do to help our customers meet the challenges facing them.

We are at the forefront of change and, of course, our customers need us to keep our products and services relevant. That’s why in 2012 we launched AP Video Hub. We needed to address the increase in demand from online publishers for video news with a service that was compelling and easy to use. These customers saw video as another critical element of their storytelling tool box, but before 2012 it was difficult for non-broadcasters to access and use AP video easily.

Since the launch of AP Video Hub, the platform has gone from strength to strength and we recently announced our Content Partner Offer, which allows third-party content to be sold via the platform. The first partner to go live was Newsflare, an online video news community for user-generated video, which adds a new dimension to the site and meets an increasing demand for this type of content.

We also launched a new video service in the Middle East earlier this year to meet the insatiable demand for news in the region, offering customers more unique video content centered on the news that matters most to consumers there. Our Deloitte research showed that, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, Middle East consumers value trusted news sources – particularly when it comes to video. We want to ensure that our customers are in a position to provide their own customers exactly what they need.