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.

Giarrusso to lead AP sports coverage

Michael Giarrusso

AP Global Sports Editor Michael Giarrusso (AP photo)

Today marks 100 days until the 2014 winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, Russia, and AP has named a new global sports editor to lead coverage of the games and other major events in the coming months, including the Super Bowl outside New York and the World Cup in Brazil.

Russia Sochi Olympics

In this Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 photo, workers are fixing the Olympic emblem at an entrance to the railway station of Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. Russia starts 100 day count down on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013 for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Lesya Polyakova)

In his new role, Michael Giarrusso, a former AP sports writer, news editor and state news executive, will oversee more than 100 journalists around the world and ensure that AP remains the leader in breaking sports news across formats.

What’s Giarrusso most looking forward to?

“People are consuming more sports news than they ever have before,” Giarrusso said, in newspapers and on television, smartphones and tablets. “AP sports is perfectly positioned to deliver any type of content to readers, members and customers at a moment’s notice.”

He added: “It’s so exciting to be leading this team of great journalists, and I’m honored.”

AP is already busy covering the countdown to the games, with stories on the athletes, the apparel, the politics and more.

Read more about Giarrusso and follow him on Twitter at @MichaelG1.

Gallery opening celebrates debut of Vietnam photo book

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AP photographer Nick Ut stands near his iconic picture of a 9-year-old running from a napalm attack.

Crowds of journalists, photographers, distinguished guests and members of the public packed into the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York Thursday night to view iconic and rarely seen images of the Vietnam War taken by Associated Press photographers.

The exhibit showcases some of the nearly 300 images included in a new photo history book, “Vietnam: The Real War” (Abrams; Oct. 1, 2013; 304 pages; 300 photographs; US $40.00/CAN $45.00/UK £25).

Crowd

Visitors view the AP exhibit at the Steven Kasher Gallery.

Writer Pete Hamill, who penned the book’s evocative introduction, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nick Ut, whose work is featured prominently in the book, were on hand to sign books at the reception. AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt, Tom Curley, former chief executive at AP, and Chairman of the Board Mary Junck were also in attendance.

The exhibit runs through Nov. 30. The gallery, located at 521 W. 23rd St. in New York, is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

AP is hosting other book-related events in Washington, D.C., at the Newseum on Saturday, Oct. 26, and next month in San Francisco.

AP Vietnam Photo Exhibit

Crowds attend the opening of the AP photo exhibit at the Steven Kasher Gallery (Photo by Sean Thompson)

AP Vietnam Photo Exhibit

Visitors crowd into the Steven Kasher Gallery to view the AP photo exhibit (Photo by Sean Thompson)

AP statement on CPJ report

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a report today on the Obama administration and the press that references the secret seizure of AP phone records by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year.

Read today’s AP news story about the report, which includes the following statement from Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll:

“The report highlights the growing threats to independent journalism in the United States, a country that has for two centuries upheld press freedom as a measure of a democratic society.

“We find we must fight for those freedoms every day as the fog of secrecy descends on every level of government activity. That fight is worthwhile, as we learned when the outcry over the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records led to proposed revisions intended to protect journalists from overly broad investigative techniques. Implementation of those revisions is an important next step.”

AP and Terry McAuliffe story

The Associated Press withdrew a story Wednesday night that said Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe was accused in court documents of having lied to a federal investigator looking into a benefit scheme.

Here is the most recent version of AP’s story on the matter.

Paul Colford, Director of AP Media Relations, said in a statement on Thursday morning:

The initial alert moved on AP’s Virginia state wire at 9:45 p.m. The story was withdrawn one hour and 38 minutes later. That was an hour and 38 minutes too long. As our retraction said, “The indictment did not identify McAuliffe as the ‘T.M.’ who allegedly lied to investigators.”

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.”

Paul Cheung named director of interactive and digital news production

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Paul Cheung

The following promotion was announced today by AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara in an internal memo:

I’m pleased to announce that Paul Cheung is now AP’s director of interactive and digital news production.

Paul joined the AP newsroom in 2010 after roles at the Miami Herald and the Wall Street Journal. Most recently, he’s been serving as the president of the Asian American Journalists Association, where has received rave reviews from colleagues throughout the industry for his leadership and approach in building the organization.

Paul has been in the interim director role at the AP for the past several months, leading the team responsible for some of the company’s key products and innovation areas: interactives, data analysis and visualization, video explainers, mapping, GraphicsBank, news research, AP Overview and print graphics. The team — which includes staff at several AP offices around the world — also has been instrumental in the launch of the online products known as the digital news experiences, as well as parts of AP Mobile.

In this new role, Paul will oversee more of the production of those digital products, which had been part of the Nerve Center’s evolution the past few years. The digital news experiences, AP Mobile and a few other products related to specific customers will now roll up into the interactive and digital news production department. As part of this move, Jaime Holguin, who as the news development manager at the Nerve Center has played a pivotal role in the execution of many of these products, will report into Paul and the new department. Jaime, as he has been, will work with the business operations on products and be the point person between the rebooted, news-focused Nerve Center and the new department.

In the weeks ahead, Jaime and Paul will be working with Tamer Fakahany, the deputy managing editor overseeing the Nerve Center, on workflows and the location of products within the headquarters newsroom.

Please join me in offering congratulations, as these moves will allow us to continue to fine-tune our products and grow while refocusing the Nerve Center on the coordination of AP’s news report every day.