Spain train crash: How a journalist’s quick thinking led to vital info

It was Spain’s worst rail disaster in 70 years. An express train careened off the tracks in a jumble of flying steel, killing 79 people. In chaos that followed one key question emerged almost instantly: Was the train driver speeding? Initial but unsourced reports indicated he was. Video of the crash from a security camera seemed to show this. But as in the immediate aftermath of most disasters, precise, reliable information was very hard to come by.

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This combo image taken from security camera video shows clockwise from top left a train derailing in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on Wednesday July 24, 2013. Spanish investigators tried to determine Thursday why a passenger train jumped the tracks and sent eight cars crashing into each other just before arriving in this northwestern shrine city on the eve of a major Christian religious festival, killing at least 77 people and injuring more than 140. (AP Photo)

Then, video graphics producer Panagiotis Mouzakis at the GraphicsBank in London had one of those brainstorm moments that remind us that journalism is about thinking –and sometimes counting, too. AP had obtained the security camera footage of the train rounding a bend, derailing and plowing into two pylons. Mouzakis realized that if he could figure out the distance between the pylons, he could calculate how fast the train was moving.

What followed was a true multiformat effort: First, Mouzakis advanced the video frame-by-frame, using the time stamp to figure out how long it took the train to travel between the first pylon and the second. Next, Madrid-based freelance cameraman Alfonso Bartolome Zafio, who was running the liveshot at the scene, estimated the distance between the two pylons. To back that up, Europe Desk editor Fisnik Abrashi used an AP photo picked up from a local newspaper to count how many cross ties there were on the tracks between the pylons, and editor Bob Barr, a railroad buff, researched the typical distance between ties on European railroads.

Each method gave AP a range of possible speeds: one was 89-119 mph; the other 96-112 mph. The speed limit was 50 mph, so AP was able to report far ahead of official announcements that the train was traveling about twice the speed limit. (Black box data released five days later showed they were exactly right: The preliminary investigation shows the driver braked from 119 mph to 95 mph in the moments before the crash.)

The resulting story was used around the world, including in The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Boston Globe and ABC News. The Daily Mail in Britain _ where news agency attribution is almost unheard of _ credited AP’s calculation, and both the BBC and Sky News cited the AP analysis in their nightly news programs.

CNN’s “Reliable Sources” highlighted the AP reporting. In his glowing account, host Frank Sesno called AP’s calculations the highlight of the week:  “In less than two hours, the AP went from video to story, providing vital information. For instincts, initiative and transparency in reporting, the AP proved itself a reliable source.”

For taking material everyone had access to, and finding a way to draw crucial conclusions from it at a speed that produced exclusive news, Mouzakis wins this week’s $500 prize.

– A memo to staff from Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Michael Oreskes

Journalism as we know it …

Is journalism as we know it on its last legs?

In journalism conferences and blogs, the last-leg school has been gaining currency in the past few months. Its proponents argue that the basic transmission of information has become something almost anyone can do. This information, they say, is seen by everyone — long before journalistic gatekeepers can try to control it. The bottom line: If there’s anything left for journalists to do, it’s to attempt to add value by analyzing and retelling what everyone has seen already.

I’m not convinced that all journalism will, or should, go this way. Traditional journalism — and I include in that category some terrific journalism startups — still have a lot to recommend them. I’ve shared some thoughts on this issue in The Huffington Post.

AP statement on DOJ review of media guidelines

“The Associated Press is gratified that the Department of Justice took our concerns seriously. The description of the new guidelines released today indicates they will result in meaningful, additional protection for journalists. We’ll obviously be reviewing them more closely when the actual language of the guidelines is released, but we are heartened by this step.”

Erin Madigan White
Senior Media Relations Manager
The Associated Press

Read the AP news story.

Was the overthrow of Egypt’s government a coup?

UPDATED ON MONDAY:

When the military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist government last Wednesday, placing him under house arrest, AP took a wait-and-see approach to use of the word “coup.” We initially recommended that our staff not describe the events as a coup because of what appeared to be wide public support of the army’s action — and the fact that the overthrow resembled a popular revolt as much as a classic military coup.

However, the military’s subsequent actions — jailing the leaders of the Morsi regime, arresting members of his political party and cracking down on the pro-Morsi media — have made the takeover seem more than a simple response to public pressure in that first night. Violent clashes between pro-Morsi groups and those supporting his ouster, and the dissolution of parliament by the military-installed president, laid bare deep conflicts in Egypt that are likely to continue.

“Coup” now seems to be an accurate term for what transpired, by the AP Stylebook’s main reference dictionary. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, defines a coup as “the sudden, forcible overthrow of a ruler, government, etc., sometimes with violence, by a small group of people already having some political or military authority.”

Therefore we’ll now use the word coup to describe the military intervention. But we’re asking our writers to add some qualifying explanation nonetheless. For example, we might refer to “an overthrow by military force — spurred by a popular revolt against the Islamist-dominated government, whose adherents resisted the coup.”

In a headline, coup is acceptable. However, stories should, for completeness, point out that the coup/takeover followed a series of widespread national protests.


Our Wednesday blog entry:

Here’s a story we put out today on the use of the word “coup” in connection with the Egypt story. As we explain in the last paragraph, the AP is, for the time being, avoiding that word in our descriptions of of what has happened. (We will use the word of course, in quoting those who do use it.)

Was the overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist government on Wednesday a coup?
Much hangs on the exact words used to describe what happened.
If the U.S. government determines the Egyptian military carried out a coup, it could affect the $1.5 billion in economic and military assistance Washington gives Egypt each year.
“U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Lahey, a key decision-maker on U.S. foreign aid, said Wednesday. He said his foreign assistance committee “will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture.”
In Egypt, too, the legitimacy of the military’s action hangs on how it is publicly viewed. In an English-language tweet, deposed President Mohammed Morsi said the military had staged a “full coup.” The military rejected the term, saying in a statement it never engages in coups but “always stands by the will and aspirations of the glorious Egyptian people for change and reform.”
The usual Arabic term for a military coup is “inqilab askari.” Inqilab literally means overturning; askari means military.
“Coup” comes from the French “coup d’etat,” or “stroke of state.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines it as the “sudden, forcible overthrow of a ruler, government, etc., sometimes with violence, by a small group of people already having some political or military authority.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language also speaks of a “small group.”
Egypt’s military overthrew an elected government after giving Morsi and his political opponents first seven days, then 48 hours to work out their own differences. Egypt’s top military officers could also be defined as a “small group,” but they acted after millions of citizens across the country demonstrated for Morsi’s removal. The military’s statement said its move was “an interaction with the pulse of the Egyptian street.”
The military installed a civilian government, not putting generals directly in power.
So far, The Associated Press is not characterizing the overthrow as a “coup,” using purely descriptive terms like “the overthrow of Morsi by the military.”
___
Associated Press reporters Donna Cassata in Washington and Lee Keath in Cairo contributed to this story.