About Erin Madigan White

Senior Media Relations Manager and proud promoter of The Associated Press. https://twitter.com/emadiganwhite

New AP tool helps journalists manage data

troy_thibodeaux_headshot

Troy Thibodeaux (AP Photo)

The Associated Press’ data team and developers from civic technology company DataMade have created a new tool to make it easier for journalists to add context to a data set. Here, AP Editor for Interactive Technology Troy Thibodeaux, who conceived and launched the tool called Geomancer, explains its potential:

Why did AP create Geomancer?
AP has been a pioneer in data journalism and is committed to helping journalists use data more efficiently to find and tell important stories. We won a grant last year from the Knight Prototype Fund to build an open-source tool to help journalists make sense of data by mashing it up with other data sets about the same geographic location.

For reporters who work with data, it’s a common and laborious task to look up population or demographic data about the counties or ZIP codes represented in a given data set. Geomancer puts this data just a few clicks away. Our goal is to remove the drudgery from data so reporters can focus on finding the story.

How does it work?
Currently, the Geomancer prototype includes two data sources: the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey (via CensusReporter.org) and federal contracts from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s USASpending.org. It allows users to find data based on 10 geographic levels, including state, county and congressional district. There has already been some community interest in adding new data sets and geographical types.

The Geomancer team has created a working demo (geomancer.io) to show the tool’s potential and simple instructions that any newsroom can follow to install its own Geomancer and build its own warehouse of geography-based data sources. The Geomancer blog at geomancer.ap.org includes links to example data sets for getting started.

What’s next?
We’ll be working to help journalists inside and outside of the AP use Geomancer, and we are excited to see what stories it will help them produce. We’re looking forward to getting feedback from users and will be exploring ways to refine the tool, which is in a beta version.

A scoop that surprised the experts

The following memo to AP staff from Senior Managing Editor Mike Oreskes describes how an environmental exclusive came together through the reporting of a European correspondent, joined by AP colleagues in Asia:

A scoop tells readers something they didn’t know. AP’s Karl Ritter went further and broke news so exclusive that even experts in the field were surprised. His story, this week’s Beat of the Week, disclosed how $1 billion in climate-change financing under a U.N.-led program was being used to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia.

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs.  (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

The story broke as key players in the climate change community were gathering for a summit in Peru, and they reacted with surprise and concern. Coal, after all, is a major source of carbon pollution.

Even U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres acknowledged she was unaware that Japan was building coal plants with climate money, until she saw AP’s story. “There is no argument for that,” she told Ritter. “Unabated coal has no room in the future energy system.”

Ritter, the AP’s bureau chief in Stockholm, started with a simple goal. “I wanted to investigate where climate finance money was going because there didn’t seem to be any accountability in the UN system,” he says.

He began by turning to a non-governmental organization that tries to keep track of the scores of channels of climate finance, which is money flowing from rich to poor countries as a way to tackle global warming. Searching the group’s database, he found that Japan had provided funding for the biggest projects so far.

Turning next to the U.N. climate secretariat, he located an annex listing Japanese climate finance projects reported to the UN in 2010-2012. That’s where he spotted the “thermal” power plants in Indonesia.

When he realized they were coal-fired power plants, he thought there must be some mistake. He went back to the NGO and asked if they had any idea how coal plants could get on the list. They, too, thought there must be a mistake: “That can’t be right,” the NGO representative said.

“That’s when I realized we had a story,” Ritter says. “If even NGOs dedicated to tracking climate finance didn’t know about these plants, how would anyone else?”

He started researching the plants in question and found reports from Indonesia saying villagers near the Cirebon plant had protested, in vain, plans to build it.

Margie Mason in Jakarta then led a cross-format team that went to Cirebon in September. Villagers told her that since the plant was built in 2012 their catches of crab, mussels and shrimp had dwindled. Plant officials denied any environmental problems, though they acknowledged there may have been some inconvenience to local fishermen.

Next, Ritter needed Japan’s response. How did officials there justify counting Cirebon and two other plants in Indonesia as climate finance at a time when other developed countries were restricting public money for such projects, precisely because of their high emissions?

Yuri Kageyama and Ken Moritsugu pressed reluctant Japanese officials for comment. In the week before the climate conference in Lima, Moritsugu secured interviews with Japanese officials who not only defended the plants but said Japan will keep counting such projects as climate finance in the UN climate negotiations.

The story played prominently on abcnews.com, MSN News and Huffington Post, among others. Newsweek did its own piece on AP’s scoop.

The scoop rippled through the U.N. climate talks. Environmental groups at the talks demanded that  the Green Climate Fund exclude coal. Climate activists staged a protest against Japan’s coal funding at the conference venue. And the U.N. climate secretariat called a news conference to showcase its efforts to improve the rules governing climate finance.

“We need to define what is climate finance and what is not,”  said Seyni Nafo on the U.N. climate agency’s Standing Committee on Finance.

For a scoop that informed us all and really got the attention of the experts, Ritter wins Beat of the Week and this week’s $500 prize.

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.

8 ways the Obama administration is blocking information

The fight for access to public information has never been harder, Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee said recently at a joint meeting of the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the Associated Press Photo Managers. The problem extends across the entire federal government and is now trickling down to state and local governments.

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

Here is Buzbee’s list of eight ways the Obama administration is making it hard for journalists to find information and cover the news:

1) As the United States ramps up its fight against Islamic militants, the public can’t see any of it. News organizations can’t shoot photos or video of bombers as they take off — there are no embeds. In fact, the administration won’t even say what country the S. bombers fly from.

2) The White House once fought to get cameramen, photographers and reporters into meetings the president had with foreign leaders overseas. That access has become much rarer. Think about the message that sends other nations about how the world’s leading democracy deals with the media:  Keep them out and let them use handout photos.

3) Guantanamo: The big important 9/11 trial is finally coming up. But we aren’t allowed to see most court filings in real time — even of nonclassified material. So at hearings, we can’t follow what’s happening. We don’t know what prosecutors are asking for, or what defense attorneys are arguing.

4) Information about Guantanamo that was routinely released under President George W. Bush is now kept secret. The military won’t release the number of prisoners on hunger strike or the number of assaults on guards. Photo and video coverage is virtually nonexistent.

5) Day-to-day intimidation of sources is chilling. AP’s transportation reporter’s sources say that if they are caught talking to her, they will be fired. Even if they just give her facts, about safety, for example. Government press officials say their orders are to squelch anything controversial or that makes the administration look bad.

6) One of the media — and public’s — most important legal tools, the Freedom of Information Act, is under siege. Requests for information under FOIA have become slow and expensive. Many federal agencies simply don’t respond at all in a timely manner, forcing news organizations to sue each time to force action.

7) The administration uses FOIAs as a tip service to uncover what news organizations are pursuing. Requests are now routinely forwarded to political appointees. At the agency that oversees the new health care law, for example, political appointees now handle the FOIA requests.

8) The administration is trying to control the information that state and local officials can give out. The FBI has directed local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology the police departments use to sweep up cellphone data. In some cases, federal officials have formally intervened in state open records cases, arguing for secrecy.