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

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.”

Interviewing and photographing young people

Questions often arise about interviewing and photographing children and teenagers.

Should we seek a parent’s permission to interview a child? To show a child in a photo or video? Does this change in urgent news situations? Are there special anonymity rules for quoting children?

As a result, we’ve come up with some best practices for AP staff. We consider them best practices rather than firm rules because situations vary so much, and because some countries have strong laws and traditions on the matter. We expect these practices will continue to evolve.

The guidelines were prepared by AP National Writer Martha Irvine, who often writes about, films and photographs young people. She sought advice from many AP colleagues.

More on AP’s style on Pvt. Chelsea Manning

Yesterday the AP announced that we will use Pvt. Chelsea Manning to refer to the soldier convicted in the WikiLeaks case, rather than Pvt. Bradley Manning. We also will use female pronouns for Manning.

Our decision brought several questions from readers. In particular, readers asked if we were giving in to a pseudonym by accepting “Chelsea Manning” (middle name Elizabeth) or if we should have waited for Manning to do a legal change of name. Others questioned the whole idea of referring to Manning as a woman in the absence of sex-change surgery.

Our basic guidance on transgender people has been in the AP Stylebook for years. It applies to all people, not just celebrities or public figures. It says, “Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.”

Our guidance does not require sex-change surgery in order to present oneself as a member of the other sex. Manning is clearly presenting herself as a woman, so female pronouns apply.

But what about the name?

We often do use legal names as a guideline. But AP style is not ultimately determined by court or government action. We refer to many entertainment and sports figures by the names they’re commonly known by, whatever their legal names may be.

We do oppose pseudonyms, but that policy is based on the fact that most pseudonyms are used to conceal a person’s true identity. In the Manning case, there’s no question what person we’re talking about.

Manning’s case also does not involve a spur-of-the-moment change. An army psychiatrist testified at trial that Manning was diagnosed with gender-identity disorder in Iraq in 2010. On the basis of this testimony, the photograph of Manning as a woman and the private’s own signed statement, it seems clear that Manning’s new identity, including the name Chelsea, is a real thing to her.

When Chaz Bono, the child of Sonny and Cher, underwent a gender transformation from female to male, AP began referring to him as Chaz in 2009. His formal name change came only in 2010.

While the Stylebook doesn’t directly address name changes in transgender situations, it accepts “nicknames” such as Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson. The spirit of the Stylebook entry is that, after consideration, AP can call people what they wish to be called. Manning’s self-identification as Chelsea seems to merit at least the same consideration.

What to expect when you’re interviewed by AP

Sometimes people ask about the “ground rules” when they’re being interviewed or photographed by AP. Here’s what you should expect when working with an AP reporter, photographer or videographer:
_ We want to hear and see your story. We’ll try hard to accurately convey what you say, and to provide background that gives the context for your remarks.
_ We prefer to talk to you directly. We seek to do all interviews in person or by phone, Skype or similar. Sometimes we may ask questions by email. But our story will then characterize our exchange as an email conversation, not an interview.
_ We want to interview you on the record, with your name in our story, radio report, TV piece or photo caption. We can grant anonymity in some cases but our rules are quite strict. Generally we bar any anonymous expressions of opinion, and do not grant anonymity unless it is the only way to get information that is essential to the story. We also weigh the risk to the source if he or she is quoted on the record. If you wish to say something on an anonymous basis, be clear with the reporter; we may not be able to use it unless you’re willing to have your name attached to it. Also, if we quote you anonymously in a story, we cannot quote you on the record, elsewhere in the story, as refusing to comment.
_ We almost never obscure a face in photos or video. On rare occasions we can take photos and video from an angle that does not identify the person. Any such issues should be discussed with the photographer or videographer.
_ We cannot show you our story, or the images we’ve taken, before publication. We also cannot allow interviewees to review or edit before publication the quotes they give in interviews. (AP reporters are free to, at their own initiative, check a quote with a newsmaker during or after an interview to make sure it is correct.)
_ We cannot provide a full list of questions in advance. We may specify some general areas we intend to ask about, but we always reserve the right to ask about something else.
_ We cannot agree not to ask about specific topics. If you decline to comment, we’ll report that.
_ If you feel your comments were rendered inaccurately, contact the reporter or editor. We will correct the story if appropriate.

For more on AP’s editorial standards, see the AP Statement of News Values and Principles.

Journalism as we know it …

Is journalism as we know it on its last legs?

In journalism conferences and blogs, the last-leg school has been gaining currency in the past few months. Its proponents argue that the basic transmission of information has become something almost anyone can do. This information, they say, is seen by everyone — long before journalistic gatekeepers can try to control it. The bottom line: If there’s anything left for journalists to do, it’s to attempt to add value by analyzing and retelling what everyone has seen already.

I’m not convinced that all journalism will, or should, go this way. Traditional journalism — and I include in that category some terrific journalism startups — still have a lot to recommend them. I’ve shared some thoughts on this issue in The Huffington Post.

Was the overthrow of Egypt’s government a coup?

UPDATED ON MONDAY:

When the military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist government last Wednesday, placing him under house arrest, AP took a wait-and-see approach to use of the word “coup.” We initially recommended that our staff not describe the events as a coup because of what appeared to be wide public support of the army’s action — and the fact that the overthrow resembled a popular revolt as much as a classic military coup.

However, the military’s subsequent actions — jailing the leaders of the Morsi regime, arresting members of his political party and cracking down on the pro-Morsi media — have made the takeover seem more than a simple response to public pressure in that first night. Violent clashes between pro-Morsi groups and those supporting his ouster, and the dissolution of parliament by the military-installed president, laid bare deep conflicts in Egypt that are likely to continue.

“Coup” now seems to be an accurate term for what transpired, by the AP Stylebook’s main reference dictionary. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, defines a coup as “the sudden, forcible overthrow of a ruler, government, etc., sometimes with violence, by a small group of people already having some political or military authority.”

Therefore we’ll now use the word coup to describe the military intervention. But we’re asking our writers to add some qualifying explanation nonetheless. For example, we might refer to “an overthrow by military force — spurred by a popular revolt against the Islamist-dominated government, whose adherents resisted the coup.”

In a headline, coup is acceptable. However, stories should, for completeness, point out that the coup/takeover followed a series of widespread national protests.


Our Wednesday blog entry:

Here’s a story we put out today on the use of the word “coup” in connection with the Egypt story. As we explain in the last paragraph, the AP is, for the time being, avoiding that word in our descriptions of of what has happened. (We will use the word of course, in quoting those who do use it.)

Was the overthrow of Egypt’s Islamist government on Wednesday a coup?
Much hangs on the exact words used to describe what happened.
If the U.S. government determines the Egyptian military carried out a coup, it could affect the $1.5 billion in economic and military assistance Washington gives Egypt each year.
“U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Lahey, a key decision-maker on U.S. foreign aid, said Wednesday. He said his foreign assistance committee “will review future aid to the Egyptian government as we wait for a clearer picture.”
In Egypt, too, the legitimacy of the military’s action hangs on how it is publicly viewed. In an English-language tweet, deposed President Mohammed Morsi said the military had staged a “full coup.” The military rejected the term, saying in a statement it never engages in coups but “always stands by the will and aspirations of the glorious Egyptian people for change and reform.”
The usual Arabic term for a military coup is “inqilab askari.” Inqilab literally means overturning; askari means military.
“Coup” comes from the French “coup d’etat,” or “stroke of state.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines it as the “sudden, forcible overthrow of a ruler, government, etc., sometimes with violence, by a small group of people already having some political or military authority.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language also speaks of a “small group.”
Egypt’s military overthrew an elected government after giving Morsi and his political opponents first seven days, then 48 hours to work out their own differences. Egypt’s top military officers could also be defined as a “small group,” but they acted after millions of citizens across the country demonstrated for Morsi’s removal. The military’s statement said its move was “an interaction with the pulse of the Egyptian street.”
The military installed a civilian government, not putting generals directly in power.
So far, The Associated Press is not characterizing the overthrow as a “coup,” using purely descriptive terms like “the overthrow of Morsi by the military.”
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Associated Press reporters Donna Cassata in Washington and Lee Keath in Cairo contributed to this story.