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

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

A simple kindness

How much should a reporter or photographer get personally involved with the people they’re covering? AP staff seek never to become part of a news story, but there’s nothing wrong with a simple human kindness.

A recent example:

A Pakistani girl comforts her brother near her family's makeshift tent in a slum in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Slums, which are built on illegal lands, have neither running water or sewage disposal. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

A Pakistani girl comforts her brother near her family’s makeshift tent in a slum in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Slums, which are built on illegal lands, have neither running water or sewage disposal. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

On Oct. 21, AP Photographer Muhammed Muheisen in Islamabad made this image. The caption said it showed “a Pakistani girl comforting her brother near her family’s makeshift tent” in an Islamabad slum.

Shortly afterward Muheisen received an email from an American woman who was touched by his photo: “… I never really appreciated what I have until seeing that picture. … Is there anyway [sic] to get money, food, clothing to that family … a doll or toy or something that shows them that their life is important and the love that they have for each other is everything?”

At first we checked to see if there was a local charity the woman could contact — the best vehicle to directly help the children. But there was no group that helps this slum. Muheisen then said he would be happy to personally relay the woman’s comments to the children and bring them some small gifts. We had no trouble with that suggestion.

AP staffers have showed humanity in many other such situations. As AP reporters fanned out to cover the devastation of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, they discovered a nursing home for the elderly where 84 residents were close to death from hunger, thirst and neglect. AP wrote a stunning story about conditions there.

The story generated huge reader reaction. It included questions on AP’s Facebook page and Twitter feed about whether reporters in such situations are obligated to just report, or are allowed or expected to provide help personally.

Reporters are human. We often give what help we can in situations like this. Our staff brought the elderly people water — the first the recipients had had since the quake — and came back later with more.

The greatest assistance journalists can render to people in need is to write about their plight and encourage help and compassion. Our story on the elderly Haitians eventually brought a response from a charity group. But our staff can extend some charity themselves, and often do.

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.

New journalism ethics?

Is journalism moving toward a new set of ethics? A new book of essays from the Poynter journalism institute is drawing a lot of attention in journalism circles. The book was edited by Poynter ethics specialist Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. It argues that the fundamentals of journalistic ethics are moving from truth, independence and “do no harm” to a new hierarchy: truth, transparency and interaction with the community.

The book holds that journalism doesn’t necessarily have to be independent of any political or social point of view. It can equally well come from some viewpoint, so long as the journalist is transparent about what his perspective is. The book’s concept of community interaction incorporates the idea of “do no harm” but goes well beyond that — to a real synergy between journalists and the people who consume news.

The book and other new views of journalism were the subject of a forum last night at the Ford Foundation in New York (tweeted in detail by those attending, under the hashtag #newethics).

Carrying the flag for AP were Senior Managing Editor Mike Oreskes and myself.

Mike said transparency is an important value, but is not a substitute for independence. Disclosing connections, conflicts or partisan affiliations is important for journalists who have them. But in a world inundated with information of various levels of credibility, he said, it’s more important than ever that at least some of our journalism be thoroughly independent

There was a lot of talk about truth and how it is harder to find in the cacophony of different voices on the Internet. Mike urged that we separate the words “fact” and “truth.” Much of the day-to-day work of journalism is establishing and verifying fact.

Clay Shirky, a New York University professor and author of an essay in the book, argued that the easier a fact is to establish the less important it is. Mike dissented, citing “the president is dead.” It is either fact or not. And surely important.

But Mike agreed that larger truth involves complicated subjects that can require a great deal of knowledge and expertise. He mentioned climate change. There are weather stations around the world that have recorded increases in temperature over the years, he said. Those measurements are facts. But it is the judgment of scientists that this warming is a global trend probably caused by carbon use. Journalists, Mike said, need to be clear about the distinction.

As AP standards editor, I said the AP is already doing many of the things the book recommends. We’re transparent about where we’re coming from: we strive to present an objective view of world rather than serve a specific point of view. We publicly correct our mistakes. We work to be open to the communities we serve, especially through the hundreds of AP staffers who interact with AP’s readers and viewers on social networks.

Many aspects of journalistic ethics will continue to evolve. But fairness and accuracy are bedrock principles we expect to stand on for a long time.

A new era in AP polling

Today the AP is publishing a poll that opens a new era in AP’s polling techniques.

Until now, AP polling in the United States has been based on telephone calls to a representative sample of Americans. AP had avoided most online polls because of questions about how representative they are.

AP and its polling partner GfK have now begun using online polls, conducted under very specific conditions, that we believe are as accurate as polls by phone.

The first poll based on the new method, which reports on public reaction to the U.S. government shutdown, was published today. Here, AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta explains the methodology behind the new polling system.

What to call it: “Obamacare”? Affordable Care Act? “New health care law”?

The question has come up again: What should we call this new program?

In AP news reports, our preference is to use wording like “the nation’s new health insurance system,” “the health care overhaul” or “the new health care law.”

Terms like “Obamacare” and the Affordable Care Act have their downsides:

_ “Obamacare” was coined by opponents of the law and is still used by them in a derogatory manner. It’s true that the White House, and even Obama himself, have used the term on occasion. But the administration hasn’t totally embraced “Obamacare” and still uses the Affordable Care Act much of the time. We’re sticking with our previous approach to “Obamacare”: AP writers should use it in quotes, or in formulations like “the law, sometimes known as Obamacare, provides for …”

_ The Affordable Care Act is the official name of the law. However, its very name is promotional; opponents believe it will not be affordable for individuals or the country. Also, polling indicates that not all Americans know the law by this name. AP writers can use the term when necessary to refer to the law, but should do so sparingly.

Bottom line: terms like “the nation’s new health care law” are preferred.

(According to the AP Stylebook, “health care” is two words.)

Another change in the spelling of the Iranian president’s name

We’ve made another change to the spelling of the Iranian president’s name. We will henceforth spell it Hassan Rouhani rather than Hasan Rouhani. During the current United Nations General Assembly session, Rouhani’s office has been sending out materials in English with the president’s first name spelled with a double “s.” We checked with officials there and they say the president prefers that spelling in English.

This is our second change to the spelling of Rouhani’s name this year. Until late June we had used Hasan Rowhani, a spelling we’d long used for this Iranian politician and former nuclear negotiator.

However, after he became president-elect, we noted that some publications were spelling his name Rouhani. We were told “Rouhani” is the English rendering that the president prefers, so we changed to that.

The AP Stylebook says we should “follow the individual’s preference for an English spelling if it can be determined.”