About Erin Madigan White

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

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

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.

AP CEO lays out 5 measures to ensure press freedom

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt addresses National Press Club in Washington, June 19, 2013.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt addresses National Press Club in Washington, June 19, 2013.

In the wake of a secret seizure of AP journalists’ phone records by the U.S. Department of Justice last month, Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the overbroad action is already having a chilling effect on journalism.

In a speech today at the National Press Club in Washington, Pruitt, a First Amendment lawyer by training, outlined five steps that are “imperative to give meaning to the powers spelled out” in the Constitution to safeguard press freedom:  

  • “First: We want the Department of Justice to recognize the right of the press to advance notice and a chance to be heard before its records are taken by the government. This would have given AP the chance to point out the many failings of the subpoena. We believe notice was required under existing regulations; if the DOJ sees it differently, then regulations must be strengthened to remove any doubt.
  • Second: We want judicial oversight. We need to ensure that proper checks and balances are maintained. In the AP phone records case, the Justice Department determined, on its own, that advance notice could be skipped, with no checks from any other branch of government. Denying constitutional rights by executive fiat is not how this government should work.
  • Third: We want the DOJ guidelines updated to bring them into the 21st century. The guidelines were created before the Internet era. They didn’t foresee emails or text.  The guidelines need to ensure that the protections afforded journalists from the forced disclosure of information encompass all forms of communication.
  • Fourth: We want a federal shield law enacted with teeth in it that will protect reporters from such unilateral and secret government action.
  • Fifth: We want the Department to formally institutionalize what Attorney General Holder has said: that the Justice Department will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.  The Department should not criminalize — or threaten to criminalize — journalists for doing their jobs, such as by calling them co-conspirators under the Espionage Act, as they did Fox reporter James Rosen.  This needs to be part of an established directive, not only limited to the current administration.”

Read the full text of Pruitt’s prepared remarks.

Read the AP news story.

AP photographers accept Pulitzer Prize for Syria coverage

Five Associated Press journalists accepted the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography at an awards ceremony at New York’s Columbia University on May 30.  It is the 51st Pulitzer for AP and the 31st for photography.

Earlier this week the team reflected on the challenges and risks of documenting the civil war in Syria.

See a slideshow of the winning images.

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From left are: Pakistan chief photographer Muhammed Muheisen, Manu Brabo of Spain, Narciso Contreras of Mexico, Rodrigo Abd of Peru and Gaza-based Khalil Hamra. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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From left are: Gaza-based Khalil Hamra, Rodrigo Abd of Peru, Pakistan chief photographer Muhammed Muheisen, Manu Brabo of Spain and Narciso Contreras of Mexico. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

AP Pulitzer winners reflect on challenges, risks of covering Syria

The Associated Press journalists who won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography come from vastly different backgrounds, but are united in their mission to document the civil war in Syria openly, fairly and accurately.

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From left, Santiago Lyon, Rodrigo Abd, Muhammed Muheisen, Khalil Hamra, Narciso Contreras, Manu Brabo and Manoocher Deghati.

The team of Rodrigo Abd, Manu Brabo, Narciso Contreras, Khalil Hamra and Muhammed Muheisen spoke candidly about their experiences, living conditions and the backstory of some of their powerful images at a panel discussion for staff at AP headquarters in New York ahead of the Pulitzer ceremony on May 30. They were joined by Middle East Regional Photo Editor Manoocher Deghati and AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon.

Abd, who is based in Lima, Peru, but is of Syrian descent, said “going back to his roots” to cover this story was sad, but important. “We don’t do this for awards. We believe in journalism and the impact we can have with pictures,” he said.

Speaking about the importance of getting their images out to the world, Muheisen said: “If this picture doesn’t go out, it didn’t happen.”

 See a slideshow of winning images.

AP photographer: For a moment, hope in devastation

AP Photographer Sue Ogrocki has worked in Oklahoma for more than 10 years where she has covered about a dozen tornadoes. She was at the elementary school destroyed by a tornado and saw rescuers pulling children out of the rubble, capturing the key images of the tragedy. This is her account of what she witnessed.

Watch AP news video.

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Follow the latest news from Oklahoma.

AP CEO: Secret seizure of phone records ‘unconstitutional’

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In this Sunday, May 19, 2013, photo provided by CBS News, Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, discusses the leak investigation that led to his reporters’ phone records being subpoenaed by the Justice Department on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in Washington. (AP Photo/CBS, Chris Usher)

Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt called the U.S. Justice Department’s sweeping and secret seizure of journalists’ telephone records “unconstitutional” during an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday.

Pruitt, a former First Amendment attorney, told host Bob Schieffer that the DOJ acted as “judge, jury and executioner” with the overbroad action and said it would have a negative impact on journalism. Some officials are already telling AP they’re “a little reluctant” to talk and fear they’re being monitored by the government, he said.

Read or watch the AP news story.

Updated: AP responds to latest DOJ letter

Statement from May 14, 2013

From Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press:

We appreciate the DOJ’s prompt response, but it does not adequately address our concerns. The letter simply restates the law and claims that officials have complied with it. There are three significant concerns:

The scope of the subpoena was overbroad under the law, given that it involved seizing records from a broad range of telephones across AP’s newsgathering operation. More than 100 journalists work in the locations served by those telephones. How can we consider this inquiry to be narrowly drawn?

Rather than talk to us in advance, they seized these phone records in secret, saying that notifying us would compromise their investigation. They offer no explanation of this, however.

Instead they captured the telephone numbers between scores of AP journalists and the many people they talk to in the normal business of gathering news. How would narrowing the scope of the phone records have compromised their investigation?

In their response today, the DOJ says the seized records cover only a portion of April and May of 2012. However, in their original notification to us on May 10, they say they have “received toll records from April and May 2012,” and then list 20 different numbers for AP offices and staff.

Finally, they say this secrecy is important for national security. It is always difficult to respond to that, particularly since they still haven’t told us specifically what they are investigating.

We believe it is related to AP’s May 2012 reporting that the U.S. government had foiled a plot to put a bomb on an airliner to the United States. We held that story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed. Indeed, the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled.

The White House had said there was no credible threat to the American people in May of 2012. The AP story suggested otherwise, and we felt that was important information and the public deserved to know it.

Statement from May 13, 2013

The U.S. Department of Justice notified The Associated Press on Friday, May 10, that it had secretly obtained telephone records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP journalists and offices, including cell and home phone lines.

AP is asking the DOJ for an immediate explanation of the extraordinary action and for the records to be returned to AP and all copies destroyed.  

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt protested the massive intrusion into AP’s newsgathering activities in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, May 13.

In the letter Pruitt states:

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations, and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”

“We regard this action by the Department of Justice as a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”

Read the AP news story.

Former AP White House photographer honored for ‘Lifetime Achievement’

Former Associated Press Senior White House photographer Ron Edmonds is being honored by the White House News Photographers Association with its Lifetime Achievement Award. It will be presented at the 2013 “Eyes of History” annual awards gala on Saturday, May 11, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington.

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President Barack Obama congratulates AP White House Photographer Ron Edmonds, with his wife Grace and daughter Ashley, upon his retirement from AP. (White House photo by Lawrence Jackson, July 30, 2009)

Edmonds is “the quintessential Washington photojournalist,” said J. David Ake, AP assistant chief of bureau for photography in Washington. “Many of his images have stood the test of time and are now icons in our collective memory. He was arguably during his Washington tenure, the AP’s most published photographer.”

In interviews with AP and PBS, Edmonds offered recollections of his fascinating career and the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan — a split-second that he captured and that earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

“I have had one of the most fantastic jobs in the world,” Edmonds told colleagues in an email upon his retirement from AP after 28 years. “It has allowed me to work with some of the greatest journalists in the world and to make images of some of the biggest events in the last thirty years. I hope that in some small way, I have helped the Associated Press maintain its prominence as the number-one news organization.”

Deported while unconscious: Reporter explains ‘medical repatriation’ practice

Last fall, an Iowa Supreme Court decision about the deportation of two Mexican men who were in the United States illegally caught the attention of Des Moines-based reporter David Pitt.

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David Pitt

The ruling noted, but provided few details about, an obscure process formally known as “medical repatriation,” which allows hospitals to put patients who are living in the U.S. illegally on chartered international flights back to their home countries, often while they are still unconscious.

Pitt sought more information on the practice. In interviews with immigrants, their families, attorneys and advocates spanning several months, including some conducted in Spanish with the help of his colleague Barbara Rodriguez, Pitt was able to explain the “little-known removal system.” Pitt’s tenacity resulted in a fascinating look (in text, photos and video) at how two of the nation’s key issues — immigration and health care — are intertwined.

The story received wide play around Iowa and reaction from readers around the globe. You can catch Pitt discussing the story Wednesday on NPR’s “Tell Me More.”

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In this Thursday March 7, 2013 photo, Jacinto Rodriguez Cruz, 49, leaves his home on a wheelchair with the help of his wife, Belen Hernandez in the city of Veracruz, Mexico. Cruz and another friend suffered serious injuries during a car accident last May 2008 in northwestern Iowa. After their employers insurance coverage ran out, Cruz, who was not a legal citizen, was placed on a private airplane and flown to Mexico still comatose and unable to discuss his care or voice his protest. Hospitals confronted with absorbing the cost of caring for uninsured seriously injured immigrants are quietly deporting them, often unconscious and unable to protest, back to their home countries. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)