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

Some guidance on Ebola and enterovirus coverage

Yesterday we distributed some guidance to our staff on coverage of Ebola and enterovirus, two diseases much in the news.

On Ebola, we said that since the United States now has its first diagnosis of the virus, we’re likely to hear increasingly of “suspected cases” in the U.S. and elsewhere. We should exercise caution over these reports.

Often the fact of an unconfirmed case isn’t worth a story at all. On several occasions already, in the U.S. and abroad, we have decided not to report suspected cases. We’ve just stayed in touch with authorities to monitor the situation.

Considerations in writing about a suspected case might be whether the report has caused serious disruption or public reaction. And, of course, we’d have to have information on the case from a solid source. We should also know how many suspected cases in the country or region involved have turned out, in fact, not to be Ebola.

In the United States, the CDC has — as of now — received about 100 inquiries from states about illnesses that initially were suspected to be Ebola, but after taking travel histories and doing some other work, were determined not to be. Of 15 people who actually underwent testing, only one _ the Dallas patient _ has tested positive.

On enterovirus, currently being reported in parts of the United States, the extent of the outbreak of enterovirus 68 is not clear. As our medical writers have pointed out, it’s not a disease that must be reported, and only very sick patients may be tested for it. Almost all victims are children. Four people infected with the virus have died, but it’s not clear what role the illness played in their deaths.

The germ is not new. It was first identified in 1962 and has caused clusters of illness before, including in Georgia and Pennsylvania in 2009 and Arizona in 2010. It’s possible the bug spread in previous years as much as it has this year, but was never distinguished from illness caused by other germs.

Here is a Q&A we ran Friday on enterovirus. It’s by Mike Stobbe, one of our experts on communicable diseases.

A style note: AP normally does not capitalize the names of diseases, like enterovirus. But when a disease is known by the name of a person or geographical area, we capitalize the proper noun: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Ebola virus (from the Ebola River in Congo).

Now we say ‘the Islamic State group’ instead of ISIL

Back in June we talked in this blog about AP’s preferred abbreviation for the fast-growing Islamic militant group in Iraq and Syria, known variously at the time as ISIL and ISIS. We explained why our preference was ISIL.

Things then changed with ISIL’s decision in July to rebrand itself as the “Islamic State.” In a recent story, we explained that AP now refers to the organization as “the Islamic State group” (not simply “the Islamic State”) and the reason for this approach.

The story is below:

By VIVIAN SALAMA
Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Propaganda has been one of the core strategies of the Sunni militant group in Syria and Iraq that today calls itself the Islamic State — and its name is very much a part of that.

In July, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced its rebranding. He declared that the territory under his control would be part of a caliphate, or an Islamic state, shortening its name from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL — the acronym used by the Obama administration and the British Foreign Office to this day. The Levant can refer to all countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt.

Different translations for the name of the al-Qaida splinter group have emerged since the early days of its existence.

Some have chosen to call it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The final word in Arabic — al-Sham — can be translated as Levant, Syria, or as Damascus.

Arab governments have long refrained from using Islamic State, instead referring to it by the Arabic acronym for its full original name, Daesh — short for Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham.

Kurdish citizens who live in Lebanon hold Arabic placards that read, "To be Yazidi means love, accord and peace" and "No to killing the Yazidi sect by Daesh" during a demonstration against the Islamic State group, in front of the UN building, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Monday Sept. 15, 2014. An activist group and a Kurdish official say heavy clashes are taking place in northeastern Syria, with Kurdish fighters capturing about a dozen villages from Islamic militants. Kurdish fighters and members of the Islamic State group have been fighting each other for more than a year in northern Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Kurdish citizens who live in Lebanon hold Arabic placards that read, “To be Yazidi means love, accord and peace” and “No to killing the Yazidi sect by Daesh” during a demonstration against the Islamic State group, in front of the UN building, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Monday Sept. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Several residents in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to the extremist group in June, told The Associated Press that the militants threatened to cut the tongue of anyone who publicly used the acronym Daesh, instead of referring to the group by its full name, saying it shows defiance and disrespect. The residents spoke anonymously out of fear for their safety.

The inconsistency, while confusing for some, has not deterred the group’s growing exposure on social media, with so many hashtags, posts and tweets ultimately directing readers and viewers to their news. Despite being associated to about a half-dozen names and acronyms, the group’s brutal objectives are becoming increasingly clear.

Prior to the group’s self-declared rebranding in July, The Associated Press opted to refer to it as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, believing it was the most accurate translation.

The AP now uses phrases like “the Islamic State group,” or “fighters from the Islamic State group,” to avoid phrasing that sounds like they could be fighting for an internationally recognized state.

“The word ‘state’ implies a system of administration and governance,” said David L. Phillips, the director of Peace-Building and Rights Program at Columbia University. “It’s not a term that would be used to characterize a terrorist group or militia that is merely rolling up territory.”

“Part of their strategy is to establish administration over lands that they control so that they demonstrate that they are more than just a fighting force,” Phillips added. Equally problematic is the use of the word “Islamic” in its name, with some calling it blasphemous.

On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius referred to the group as Daesh, calling them “butchers” who do not represent Islam or a state. He urged others to do the same.

Egypt’s top Islamic authority, Grand Mufti Ibrahim Negm, last month called on the international community to refer to the group as “al-Qaida separatists” and not the Islamic State.

“Their savage acts don’t coincide with the name of Islam,” said Sunni cleric Hameed Marouf Hameed, an official with Iraq’s Sunni religious endowment. “They incite hatred, violence and killing and these acts have no place in any real Islamic state.”

___

Associated Press reporters Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Angela Charlton in Paris and Greg Katz in London contributed to this report.

Some great saves

Every few weeks, I share with the AP staff some “great saves” by staffers who protected AP and its subscribers from hoaxes and inaccuracies. Here are some recent ones:

● Hours after an Air Algerie plane disappeared over Africa, Twitter blew up with claims that Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and niece of Fidel Castro, was on the plane. The information came from a Facebook post by the airport in Burkina Faso where the flight began, and said Castro was on the manifest. Major newspapers in Argentina, Spain and the UK went with the story online, as did some U.S. outlets. AP Havana quickly reached a source close to Mariela Castro, who said she was not on the plane. Another source told AP she was at a conference at a Havana hotel. Newswoman Andrea Rodriguez drove to the hotel and persuaded a press official to crack open a door to the closed event: there was Mariela Castro speaking from a lectern.

● A tweet went out from “Glee” star Chris Colfer’s verified account to his 2.5 million followers that said he was leaving the Fox show because of “personal issues.” Retweets went out to millions more, and a series of news outlets soon reported the news. Not the AP, however. Even though the account was verified as being legitimate by Twitter, TV writer Frazier Moore followed AP policy that even tweets from verified and familiar accounts need to be confirmed before we report them. So Moore fired off immediate emails to representatives of “Glee,” Fox and Colfer. Within a couple of minutes, Moore got his responses: Colfer wasn’t going anywhere. The actor’s account had been hacked and the tweet was bogus. Others sent corrections.

● On July 14, several news outlets carried stories with headlines like “It’s a miracle! Dead child wakes up at funeral.” The stories said a 2-year-old girl in the Philippines died but moved a finger and had a weak pulse at her funeral. The tale seemed too good to be true, and was just that. Manila correspondent Oliver Teves learned that others published the story without thoroughly investigating the claim. The girl was dead and had been buried. A health official had gone to her village and used a cardiac monitor to confirm there was no heartbeat, no breath and no pulse. She attributed the girl’s lack of rigor mortis _ one of the conditions that people cited to claim she was alive _ to her small muscle mass. We stayed away from the story.

● It would have been big news. On July 17, several news organizations quoted an Israeli official as saying Israel and Hamas had agreed to a cease-fire deal that was to take effect at 6 a.m. the next day. We received several requests for the story. But AP staffers Karin Laub and Mohammad Daraghmeh decided to check further. Daraghmeh quickly got in touch with a top aide of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who told him the report was baseless. Other news organizations soon had to backtrack.

How many U.S. states allow gay marriage?

In stories about gay marriage in the United States, we usually include the number of states where gay marriage is allowed. Settling on that that number can be complicated, though, since the situation in some states is in flux.

In Colorado, for instance, gay marriages are going forward in some jurisdictions. But the legality of gay marriage in the state remains tied up in appeals.

So what number do we use when we need a quick, short answer?

Our approach is not to count a state as allowing gay marriage until all appeals have been exhausted and/or state leaders have committed to dropping appeals.

By that standard, we don’t count Colorado. As of now, our count is that same-sex marriage is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

These are the states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, California, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon and Pennsylvania.

Is it ISIL or ISIS in Iraq?

How best to refer to the al-Qaida splinter group leading Sunni militants in Iraq? ISIL or ISIS?

In Arabic, the group is known as Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The term “al-Sham” refers to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt (also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan). The group’s stated goal is to restore an Islamic state, or caliphate, in this entire area.

The standard English term for this broad territory is “the Levant.” Therefore, AP’s translation of the group’s name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

“We believe this is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East,” says John Daniszewski, AP vice president and senior managing editor for international news.

The term ISIL also avoids the common misunderstanding, stemming from the initials ISIS, that the group’s name is the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” (“Iraq and Greater Syria” might be an acceptable translation, since Greater Syria also implies the entire area of the Levant.) But saying just “Iraq and Syria” suggests incorrectly that the group’s aspirations are limited to these two present-day countries.

ISIL is also the term used by the United Nations.


This note was corrected on June 18 to reflect that al-Sham does not include Iraq.

Covering hostage situations

Video surfaced this week from the Boko Haram group showing the schoolgirls they captured in Nigeria. The video included close-ups of the girls reciting from the Quran and answering questions from their captors, and wider shots of the group (some with an armed man in front of the girls).

While some other news organizations used the close-ups of the girls’ faces, we chose the wider shots. One is shown here.
Nigeria Kidnapped Girls
The images we selected convey the idea of the girls being held, without showing them in such detail that would identify specific children in this abusive situation. While he have given heavy coverage to this story overall, our practice on hostage images is to use the minimum necessary for news purposes while also making clear the hostages are being held under duress. We also limit to the essentials our quotations from hostage statements in such videos. We do not wish to be used for propaganda purposes.

This applies in all countries where we operate.

Sometimes the situation is not wholly clear. We’ve sometimes shown images of captured soldiers or police in fast-moving news situations. But in any case where captives are held for a significant period and are clearly in significant danger, we’re very careful with our images. And we keep our coverage of hostage statements to a minimum because we know that statements made under duress cannot be taken at face value.

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.

Datelines from Crimea

We’ve been asked whether, with the Russian takeover of Crimea, we will change our style for datelines from Crimean cities.

Previously, we wrote “SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP).” But Ukraine no longer controls Crimea, and AP datelines should reflect the facts on the ground.

Therefore, effective this week, we are using the city name and “Crimea”: “SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (AP).”

Why not “SEVASTOPOL, Russia” if Russia formalizes its annexation of the territory? The reason is that Crimea is geographically distinct from Russia; they have no land border. Saying just the city name and “Crimea” in the dateline, even in the event of full annexation, would be consistent with how we handle geographically separate parts of other countries. For instance, we just say “Sicily” and “Sardinia” in datelines — “PALERMO, Sicily (AP)” — even though they are part of Italy, and “Guadeloupe” in datelines even though that island is part of France.

“No press” decrees: A challenge for reporters

The other day I sent a note to AP staffers about fighting for access to news. Around the world, AP’s staff battles for access when officials try to block us from places and events where reporters deserve to be.

Our tools can range from quiet persuasion to public protest, from legal action to just showing up uninvited. We’re not out to break the law, but we should view baseless “no press” decrees as a challenge, not a fate.

Here’s how some AP people have recently challenged authority and won:

_ In New York, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio was set to be officially sworn in at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1 in a “private” ceremony, hours before the official inauguration at City Hall. The private ceremony would be closed to the media, but would be streamed live on the city’s website and photos would be released later on the campaign’s Flickr site. As the time for the ceremony approached, AP protested, saying that if streaming video and official photos were to be released, it could hardly be considered a private event. News Editor James Martinez told the de Blasio team that we often consider government-released images “visual press releases” that we don’t use. We also sent a story about the press being excluded. An hour later, the new administration relented. They allowed a pool, with AP providing the reporter and photographer.

_ In Japan, AP reporter Mari Yamaguchi asked to cover a trip by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Fukushima nuclear plant, but was told it was only for Japanese media. Yamaguchi complained to the prime minister’s press office, saying the plan contradicted Japan’s pledge to let the international community know more about the Fukushima disaster. The prime minister’s office then decided to allow one foreign pool reporter to go along but it had to be a male, because there was no changing room for women to put on protective gear. A lottery conducted by foreign correspondents then picked Mari’s name and the correspondents told the PM’s office the choice was nonnegotiable. Ultimately, two women from AP — Mari and a colleague from AP Television News — went on the trip.

_ In Washington state, officials have decided to allow witnesses to executions to see the entire process, including the insertion of intravenous catheters during a lethal injection. State corrections officials spoke with the AP about the new procedures after AP used public disclosure requests for information about any potential changes to execution protocols. The change in Washington is in response to a 2012 federal appeals court ruling that said all parts of an execution must be fully open to public witnesses. That ruling was sparked by a case brought by the AP and other news organizations who challenged Idaho’s policy to shield the insertion of IV catheters from public view,

Pressing officials for access is second nature for many AP staffers, but it’s an important part of our journalistic DNA. We’ve encouraged staffers to keep their regional and department chiefs aware of official stonewalling; often our experience in one region can help us in others.

AP “flashes” – what they’re all about

Mandela Flash

The “flash” we sent last week on Nelson Mandela’s death brought a new flurry of attention to AP flashes. What are they and how often do we send them?

A flash is our first word of a breaking story of transcendent importance, a story we expect to be one of the very top stories of the year. We average one or two flashes a year. They’re never more than one sentence, and frequently very condensed: “Bells ringing signaling election of a pope.”

In the old days when AP subscribers received news over teletype machines, a flash rang a series of bells on the machine, sending editors rushing to see what was happening. Usually there were 10 to 15 bells for a flash, but AP teletype operators had to type a “bell” symbol to trigger each ring, and in the excitement of a big story the number could vary.

Kennedy Flash

Today, AP editors still put a “flash” designation on stories (by clicking a “flash priority” button on our editing screens). That marks the item electronically as being a flash and may insert the word “FLASH” into the story as well. But subscribers set their computer systems to react to that code in different ways. Some systems sound an audible alarm or pop up the flash in the middle of the editor’s screen. Other systems may simply move the flash into the queue of other urgent stories. (AP identifies less transcendent, but still urgent, breaking news as “APNewsAlerts” without the flash designation.

Sometimes we know in advance that a story will merit a flash. This was the plan for Nelson Mandela’s death. But big news can happen without warning. When the United States killed Osama bin Laden and Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign, editors decided on the spot that a flash was warranted.

Here are some of our other flashes from the past 10 years:

_ Nov. 6, 2012 – Barack Obama re-elected president

_ Dec. 18, 2011 – North Korea says supreme leader Kim Jong Il has died

_ Feb. 11, 2011 – Egyptian VP says President Hosni Mubarak steps down

_ Aug. 16, 2008 – Michael Phelps wins record eighth gold medal at Beijing Olympics

_ Feb. 19, 2008 – Official media says Fidel Castro resigns presidency

_ Dec. 27, 2007 – A party aide and a military official say Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has died following a suicide bombing

_ Oct. 14, 2003 – China launches manned spacecraft

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – Second World Trade Center tower collapses

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – One World Trade Center tower collapses