The story of a prolific pedophile: How AP’s investigation came together

The discovery of a teacher whom the FBI regards as one of the most prolific pedophiles in memory has set off a crisis in the close-knit community of international schools and prompted hundreds of people to contact the bureau, greatly expanding the potential number of suspected victims.

There were decades of missed opportunities to bring William Vahey out of the shadows, The Associated Press revealed this week.

This combination of photos provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows William James Vahey in 1986, 1995, 2004 and 2013. Vahey, 64, killed himself in Luverne, Minn. on March 21, 2014. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

This combination of photos provided by the FBI shows William James Vahey in 1986, 1995, 2004 and 2013. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

The AP report and follow-up drew on AP’s global resources, as explained here by Mexico City-based Michael Weissenstein, a lead reporter in the investigation:

When did the scale of this story become evident to you?
The potential scale of William Vahey’s crimes was clear starting last month, when the FBI announced that they had photographic evidence that 90 boys had been drugged and molested, and they were seeking information from students and others who knew Vahey throughout his 40-year career. The FBI quoted Vahey himself as saying to his boss, after he was caught but before he killed himself last March, that he had been doing this all his life. What wasn’t clear was the scale of the missed opportunities to stop Vahey far sooner. This became evident as AP reporters around the world dug into Vahey’s past, digging up records and finding and interviewing people who had known him over the last four decades.

What were the obstacles and challenges in reporting it out?
This was a story about one of the most sensitive and upsetting possible topics _ child sexual molestation _ that sprawled over four decades and 10 countries on four continents. Many of Vahey’s students from years ago now lived in other countries and never knew they had been molested. The parents of students who are still minors understandably were deeply concerned about their children’s privacy. And schools and law-enforcement agencies were reluctant to talk due to concerns about privacy.

How did the global resources of AP factor into the reporting process?
We had a reporter with local sources and knowledge in every region where Vahey had worked. Tami Abdollah in Los Angeles dug deeply into the records of Vahey’s 1969 arrest for child-sex abuse, finding detailed court files and interviewing retired law-enforcement officials who knew how the system worked at the time. Bureau Chief Josh Goodman in Caracas, spoke at length to parents and staff there, unearthing details and anecdotes that allowed us to draw a detailed picture of Vahey’s time in Venezuela. Reporters in London, Minnesota, Jakarta, Dubai and Nicaragua all contributed further essential facts and color. A story like this would have been impossible without the ability to instantly activate the AP’s network of experienced reporters across the world.

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.

How reporter produced revealing closeup of Gov. Brown’s prison plan

In a memo to Associated Press staffers, Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano describes how a story spotted on a locally focused website prompted a high-impact investigation by AP of whether California Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison realignment plan is working as advertised. The story in the Turlock City News reported that Brown had visited officials in rural Stanislaus County. It caught the attention of AP Sacramento Correspondent Tom Verdin. Carovillano continues:

It seems Brown had been quietly dropping in on sheriffs and county officials around the state to gauge the effectiveness of one of the signature achievements of his latest tenure as governor: a law that reduces California’s prison population by sentencing lower-level offenders to county jails.

The governor’s office almost never announced the visits ahead of time, and he rarely spoke publicly afterward so reporters could assess how the visits went. Verdin contacted the governor’s office to find out why they hadn’t been listed on Brown’s official schedule. Brown’s spokesman told him it did not need to be because such visits with public officials were “private,” and that the official photographs distributed by the governor’s staff via Twitter would suffice for public disclosure.

Reporter Don Thompson has been aggressively covering prison realignment as part of his statehouse beat, resulting in a number of other newsbreaks and AP exclusives. In the seemingly innocuous local news item, Verdin and Thompson saw an opportunity for more accountability journalism.

Thompson began by requesting the list of counties Brown had visited. Not wanting the publicity of a formal public records request, the governor’s office complied, and Thompson began making calls to sheriff’s departments and county supervisors on the list. Over several weeks, he contacted half the counties Brown had visited, a representative sample that included urban and rural, coastal and inland.

Across the spectrum, the message was consistent: Local officials said they needed more money and that the governor had not yet followed through on his statements and promises. Two of them said Brown’s office had not gotten back to them on concerns they had raised: “I haven’t heard a thing,” said one local official.

Thompson’s reporting showed that the statements Brown was making in public  _ that “realignment is working”? _ contradicted what he was hearing from county officials.

Additionally, Thompson got an advance look at data showing the jail population for all of California’s 58 counties, before and after realignment, before they were released publicly. That chart moved in advance so members could localize the story if they wished.

Several major California dailies put Thompson’s story on their front pages, including The Fresno Bee and Santa Barbara News-Press. “The advance notice on that story was great,” said Santa Maria Times Editor Marga Cooley, whose newspaper ran it across the top of Sunday’s A1 with a localized sidebar. “The story was timely and of significant interest in our area.”

Photographer Rich Pedroncelli also was able to gain access to a jail in one of the counties Brown had visited, and the package ran with a chart showing the inmate population before and after the realignment law in all 58 counties.

Two days after the story ran, the moderator cited Thompson’s reporting during a public policy forum on prisons. One of the panelists, state Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, evoked Brown’s “it’s working” quote by saying “It depends on your definition of working, I guess.”

For striking a blow for transparency, holding the governor to account for his misleading statements on an an important accomplishment of his administration, and advancing AP’s efforts to share data with members so they can localize our state- and nation-level reporting, Thompson wins this week’s $300 Best of the States award.

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.

Pruitt: ‘Journalists today are targeted’

Three days after the killing of an Associated Press photojournalist and the wounding of an AP correspondent in Afghanistan, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt today decried attacks against journalists in remarks delivered at a press conference in New York:Gary Pruitt

A free press is the backbone of any country that calls itself a democracy. And yet around the world those whose mission it is to shine a light on power are increasingly under attack. Once regarded as the impartial eyes and ears of the world, journalists today are targeted in an attempt to influence and control the news.

Sometimes they are literally prevented from gathering news – deported, detained or even imprisoned. Other times, government officials and courts work in secrecy to block access to information that the public has a right – and need – to know. And, tragically, sometimes journalists are intentionally murdered in an effort to prevent news from being reported or to intimidate others who passionately believe in the mission of journalism.

As many of you surely know, AP suffered a tragic loss last Friday when photographer Anja Niedringhaus was targeted and killed while covering the run-up to the elections in Afghanistan. AP, and her legion of fans around the world, are mourning her loss. Kathy Gannon, her AP colleague, was seriously wounded.

Anja’s death, the detention of journalists worldwide and the growing secrecy of governments nearly everywhere make our responsibility to bear witness to history more challenging and more dangerous than ever. But also more important. AP abhors the trend of targeting journalists and will always champion the right for all journalists to work without fear in bringing vital information to light for all the world.

The press conference, involving Pruitt and leaders of other news organizations, preceded an evening symposium at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism — co-hosted by the Dart CenterColumbia Global Centers / Middle East and the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and Information Project – focused on the imprisonment of four Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt.

Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed today marked their 100th day behind bars. Abdullah Al Shamy has been held more than six months. They are among 20 defendants being tried on charges of belonging to and aiding a terrorist organization for their coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood. They have pleaded not guilty.

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.

AP honored with First Amendment Award

The Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) honored The Associated Press for defending a robust free press with its challenge to the U.S. Department of Justice for secretly seizing AP phone records.

Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, receiving the First Amendment Award for The Associated Press from RTDNF Chair Vince Duffy, during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12,  2014. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Gary Pruitt, the president and CEO of The Associated Press, receiving the First Amendment Award for AP from RTDNF Chair Vince Duffy, during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt, a First Amendment attorney, accepted the award at a black-tie event Wednesday evening in Washington emceed by Chris Wallace of Fox News.

A video narrated by “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer recounted how AP’s industry leadership this past year resulted in greater protections for all journalists.

“Because of the AP-DOJ dispute the rules protecting journalists from the reach of federal prosecutors improved swiftly and substantially,” Pruitt said.

He added: “The Department of Justice made clear, for the very first time, that they will not prosecute a journalist for doing his or her job.”

Watch a video of Pruitt’s remarks and read the AP news story.

 Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of the Associated Press, with members of the Associated Press staff during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12,  2014. Posing from left to right Dave Gwizdowski, Sally Buzbee, Ivett Chicas, Sara White, Larry Price, John Turell, Pruitt, Karen Kaiser, Ted Bridis, Denise Vance and Julie Pace. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)


Gary Pruitt, the President and CEO of The Associated Press, with members of the AP staff during the Radio Television Digital News Association, 2014 First Amendment Awards Dinner, in Washington on Wednesday, March. 12, 2014. Posing from left to right Dave Gwizdowski, Sally Buzbee, Ivett Chicas, Sara White, Larry Price, John Turell, Pruitt, Karen Kaiser, Ted Bridis, Denise Vance and Julie Pace. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Visit AP at SXSW Interactive

The Associated Press is joining thousands of digital and creative professionals from around the world converging at the 2014 SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, which runs March 7 through 11.  Here’s a rundown of where you’ll find AP:

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

Saturday, March 8

Sunday, March 9

  • AP Social Media Editor Eric Carvin (@EricCarvin) and Mandy Jenkins, managing editor for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, will discuss the responsibilities news organizations have to citizen journalists. The session will cover topics such as credits and permissions for user-generated content and working with amateurs who may find themselves reporting in dangerous circumstances. Follow along on Twitter with hashtag: #UGCEthics.  12:30-1:30 p.m., Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD.
  • And AP is sponsoring the Film + Interactive Fusion Party, which brings together filmmakers, designers, social media experts, producers and more. Featuring a DJ, games, photo booth and more, the party is open to all Interactive, Film, Gold and Platinum badge holders. 7-10 p.m., Palm Door, 508 East 6th St.

“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.

Pinning hopes on Olympic metal?

AP souvenir pins for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

AP souvenir pins for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

AP souvenir Olympic pins from years past.

AP souvenir Olympic pins from years past. (Photo courtesy AP Corporate Archives)

Pin trading at the Olympics is always an event as popular as any spectator sport. The small, colorful souvenirs are created by corporations, countries and media organizations, such as The Associated Press, and swapped and collected by athletes and fans, alike.

AP Olympic pins from years past (AP photo)

AP Olympic pins from years past (Photo courtesy AP Corporate Archives)

Designed by AP’s Creative Services team, this year’s set of four pins depicts silhouettes of athletes in bobsledding, snowboarding, hockey and figure skating.

AP-branded Olympic pins were created as far back as the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, though AP has been covering the games for more than 100 years.

A limited supply of AP Sochi 2014 pins are available for $15 a set via www.apessentials.com.

Proceeds benefit the AP Emergency Relief Fund, which provides financial assistance to AP staff impacted by disaster around the world.

People trade Olympic pins at a pin trading site in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

People trade Olympic pins at a pin trading site in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)