How reporter produced revealing closeup of Gov. Brown’s prison plan

In a memo to Associated Press staffers, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano describes how a story spotted on a locally focused website prompted a high-impact investigation by AP of whether California Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison realignment plan is working as advertised. The story in the Turlock City News reported that Brown had visited officials in rural Stanislaus County. It caught the attention of AP Sacramento Correspondent Tom Verdin. Carovillano continues:

It seems Brown had been quietly dropping in on sheriffs and county officials around the state to gauge the effectiveness of one of the signature achievements of his latest tenure as governor: a law that reduces California’s prison population by sentencing lower-level offenders to county jails.

The governor’s office almost never announced the visits ahead of time, and he rarely spoke publicly afterward so reporters could assess how the visits went. Verdin contacted the governor’s office to find out why they hadn’t been listed on Brown’s official schedule. Brown’s spokesman told him it did not need to be because such visits with public officials were “private,” and that the official photographs distributed by the governor’s staff via Twitter would suffice for public disclosure.

Reporter Don Thompson has been aggressively covering prison realignment as part of his statehouse beat, resulting in a number of other newsbreaks and AP exclusives. In the seemingly innocuous local news item, Verdin and Thompson saw an opportunity for more accountability journalism.

Thompson began by requesting the list of counties Brown had visited. Not wanting the publicity of a formal public records request, the governor’s office complied, and Thompson began making calls to sheriff’s departments and county supervisors on the list. Over several weeks, he contacted half the counties Brown had visited, a representative sample that included urban and rural, coastal and inland.

Across the spectrum, the message was consistent: Local officials said they needed more money and that the governor had not yet followed through on his statements and promises. Two of them said Brown’s office had not gotten back to them on concerns they had raised: “I haven’t heard a thing,” said one local official.

Thompson’s reporting showed that the statements Brown was making in public  _ that “realignment is working”? _ contradicted what he was hearing from county officials.

Additionally, Thompson got an advance look at data showing the jail population for all of California’s 58 counties, before and after realignment, before they were released publicly. That chart moved in advance so members could localize the story if they wished.

Several major California dailies put Thompson’s story on their front pages, including The Fresno Bee and Santa Barbara News-Press. “The advance notice on that story was great,” said Santa Maria Times Editor Marga Cooley, whose newspaper ran it across the top of Sunday’s A1 with a localized sidebar. “The story was timely and of significant interest in our area.”

Photographer Rich Pedroncelli also was able to gain access to a jail in one of the counties Brown had visited, and the package ran with a chart showing the inmate population before and after the realignment law in all 58 counties.

Two days after the story ran, the moderator cited Thompson’s reporting during a public policy forum on prisons. One of the panelists, state Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, evoked Brown’s “it’s working” quote by saying “It depends on your definition of working, I guess.”

For striking a blow for transparency, holding the governor to account for his misleading statements on an an important accomplishment of his administration, and advancing AP’s efforts to share data with members so they can localize our state- and nation-level reporting, Thompson wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

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.