Trouble with a Philippine death toll

Most people think the trickiest issues journalists face are complicated stories full of anonymous sources. But a story that tied us in knots on Thursday was a fairly basic one where all the information was fully public and on the record.

As of Thursday morning New York time, the death toll in the Philippine typhoon was 2,357, as announced by authorities in the Philippines. At midday Thursday, after nightfall in the Philippines, United Nations Associate Spokesman Farhan Haq announced in a New York briefing that the toll had risen to 4,460 — a significant jump.

Our U.N. staff double-checked the number from the briefing with a U.N. official, who confirmed it. With that, we gave the figure the full treatment — an APNewsAlert on our wires and a “push” that sets off an alerting tone for users of our mobile app.

Soon afterward, AP interactive producer Phil Holm noticed that a U.N. website was using the same figure — 4,460 — for the number of operating evacuation shelters in the Philippines.

It seemed like too much of a coincidence. We checked again with the UN spokesman. He said there had been a mistake.

We withdrew our earlier story and sent a “push” correction to our mobile subscribers.

Within minutes, however, the spokesman called us back to say that no, actually the website was wrong and 4,460 was the real death toll.

What to do? Run out a new APNewsAlert and send yet another “push” to our mobile readers?

We felt we could not subject our readers to any more whiplash based on the numbers coming out of the U.N. We needed confirmation directly from the Philippines. We woke up our staff there — at about 3 a.m. local time — and they began contacting Philippine officials to find out what the facts were.

When our reporters couldn’t get a quick official response, we sent an advisory to our subscribers explaining the situation. We published a similar story for online readers, saying that “Given the confusion, the AP is seeking to confirm the toll directly with Philippine officials.”

Finally, around 7:30 p.m. in New York, our reporters in the Philippines established that the latest official death toll, from Maj. Reynaldo Balido of the country’s civil defense agency, had gone up by only three to 2,360. The numbers issued by the civil defense agency are based on confirmed body counts. We updated our story to show that 2,360 was now the best confirmed number.

This was the first time a typhoon death toll figure issued by the U.N. had raised questions. But in the future, we will be looking to official spokesmen in the Philippines for this information. The most important thing for us is accuracy.

The takeaway: As we’ve learned many times, officials can be wrong. Even when we double-check. It’s essential to clearly convey who our sources are and to correct errors as soon as we can determine the right information.

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About Tom Kent

Deputy managing editor and standards editor of The Associated Press, responsible for accuracy and balance across all AP news services. Frequent contributor to forums and conferences on newsroom ethics and organization. Adjunct professor at the School of International Affairs and Journalism School of Columbia University. Former AP correspondent or bureau chief in Russia, Iran, Belgium, Australia and the United States. Graduate of Yale University. Languages: French, Russian, Spanish. @tjrkent