Backstory: Confirming information about secret US-Iran talks

AP’s Sunday story revealing that the U.S. and Iran had held secret talks before the announcement of a nuclear deal contained this paragraph:

The AP was tipped to the first U.S.-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. The AP learned of further indications of secret diplomacy in the fall and pressed the White House and other officials further. As the Geneva talks appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the extensive outreach.

Contrary to a number of accounts since Sunday, AP did not sit on the story for several months. We aggressively pursued the story throughout that period, trying everything we could to get it to the wire. In fact, some of the information we were tipped to in March turned out to be inaccurate.

“A tip is not a story,” said AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee. “AP was attempting to confirm, to its standards, what had happened. We published the story when we had the vital details that we needed satisfactorily confirmed.”

To quote from AP’s News Values and Principles:

“The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.”

A look at AP’s work base in Tacloban

Singapore-based photographer Maye-E Wong is among the Associated Press journalists who’ve been documenting the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan since it slammed into the Philippines Nov. 8.

Wong, who just returned home after eight days on the ground, has shared a series of images and videos on her Instagram account that give a look at conditions there.

Image

One image shows AP’s makeshift work station, seen amid much debris, at the airport in Tacloban and another shows the satellite units AP is using to file pictures and stories around the world. Another shows Wong brushing her teeth on the tarmac.

“That’s me brushing my teeth on the Tarmac of the airport in #Tacloban where we made camp (our tents in foreground) with survivors of #Typhoon #Haiyan in the #Philippines,” she writes.

Read more about what it has been like to cover the disaster from Manila-based reporter Jim Gomez.

Covering the monster typhoon

Associated Press journalists covering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines are now living and working in two locations – the meeting room in a hotel that was largely destroyed and a spot at Tacloban’s seaside airport  enclosed by a large party tent.

Ten days after the devastating storm blew through, Manila-based AP reporter Jim Gomez recounts the scene that he and colleagues first encountered:

An aerial image taken from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

An aerial image taken from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Covering the horrific death and devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, a lively central Philippine city of more than 200,000 people on Leyte island, southeast of Manila, was like reporting in a war zone.

Power, transport, fuel, food, water and telephones were snuffed out by one of the most ferocious storms on record.

In knocking out all forms of communications, Haiyan prevented news of the massive death toll and devastation from rapidly filtering out beyond the island. There was a fleeting mention  by a Manila aviation official of Tacloban’s airport being ruined by storm surges. The government put the overall death toll in the central Philippines at 3 or 4. Media outfits began speculating how the country was spared from serious damage despite the monster storm’s deadly profile.

However, the next morning, when the same aviation official told news organizations  that at least 100 people perished in Tacloban alone, AP staffers sprang into action. Video journalist Kiko Rosario and his  assistant, Vicente Gonzales; photographers Bullit Marquez and Aaron Favila and I rushed to the Villamor Air Base in Manila, where air force C-130 aircraft were taking off to transport the first  disaster-response teams and food packs to the battered city. Favila got to Villamor first, quickly looked for the manifest and listed our names – a crucial action since throngs of foreign and local journalists would converge later at the air base to fight for about a dozen seats allotted to media. All commercial flights were suspended.

After landing at Tacloban’s ruined airport,  Kiko, Bullit and Aaron quickly spread out to capture the first images of the devastation as night approached. They climbed to the top of the airport tower – its glass shattered – and took in flattened and devastated villages as far as their eyes could  see.

The airport parking lot was a muddy wasteland of upturned cars, cargo trolleys, aviation equipment and jagged tin roofs. Walking just a few blocks away, we saw bodies on roadsides, covered by tin roofs, sodden bedsheets and pieces of wood. Stunned survivors huddled together on sidewalks near corpses, covering their noses. They asked for food and water but we had none.

One lady said she was given biscuits by friends but would not eat them because she had no water. Beyond the road, she pointed to a clearing that I thought was a barren farm but turned out to be a crowded coastal village, where her house once stood, until a wall of water surged from the sea the morning the typhoon hit and swept away everything.

We  set up a makeshift office outside a low-slung, damaged building, where a few airport controllers and army troops temporarily operated. The building attracted journalists because it was the only structure in the entire airport with a light bulb on. A diesel generator supplied power. Connecting to the power line, the AP team sent out the first images and stories through laptops hooked to satellite phones.

Dinner was a piece of salty cracker topped with a small slice of sardines, courtesy of fellow journalists from another news outfit. Bed for me was a white plastic chair, in which  I tried to sleep. The stench of bodies stacked in a nearby chapel kept me awake all night.

Without car, fuel and information – the city government had virtually collapsed – it was hard to plan the next day’s  coverage. Photographers hiked  several kilometers to  town and hard-hit villages. Coordinating the movement of AP staff became a challenge without functioning telephones, so staffers were basically on their own, incommunicado, once they left our airport base. Many survivors later found their way through the airport’s broken perimeter fences and wandered near our workplaces, later competing for sleeping spaces.

There was no meal at all on the second day. Some air force personnel handed us a couple of  water bottles and later allowed us to use a hand-operated water pump that was dangerously located in the middle of a heap of sharp tin debris and rocks. We washed ourselves there.

The hardest moments were interviewing the survivors, who were  visibly traumatized. Many had missing loved ones, or they were struggling to care for injured or sick relatives and wanted to escape Tacloban but couldn’t. Most of the survivors I interviewed had not had a meal for days. Many waited in long lines outside the airport, hoping to get a flight out on military relief aircraft.

Once, while reading my notes to my colleague Todd Pitman, who was typing them in his laptop for transmission later to the Manila desk. I got overwhelmed and could not go on when I was describing how a father was embracing his kids and wife during a downpour on the tarmac. Huddled close together, I saw that they were all crying quietly. The wife and kids were to board a C-130 shortly and the father decided to stay home to guard their damaged home.

At another time we were interviewing a woman, who was with her children and other relatives. They had waited with the huge crowd for days but could not get seats in one of the outbound military planes amid the bedlam. She worried for her family and begged us for help, tears streaming down her face.

Reporter reveals disparity in state salaries

As the only news agency with reporters in all 50 statehouses across the country, The Associated Press is well-positioned to break important state government news. A recent report by an enterprising journalist in Minnesota revealed that 145 local officials earn more than the governor. A staff memo from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explains:

BRIAN BAKST

Brian Bakst

The disparity jumped out at St. Paul newsman Brian Bakst. While reporting a routine story, he noticed the salary disclosure on a city/county website. A local official, according to the website, made substantially more in salary than the state’s governor.

That little nugget led him to research what had happened across the state since the legislature relaxed what had been a rigid salary cap for local officials. The cap had tied their salaries – and their raises – to the governor’s. He picked away at the story over the next six weeks as time allowed. Eventually, he had compiled salary data from 126 Minnesota cities and counties to report his overall findings: the salaries of city and county top employees had risen sharply since the law was relaxed. In some cases, the pay for a single position had shot up more than $40,000 in about eight years. This reporting emerged just as the state was considering pay raises for its top employees.

Bakst found that at least 145 city or county officials making more than the governor’s $120,303. And as he smartly pointed out in the story, that’s just their base pay. That doesn’t include car allowances and other benefits that add to the compensation package. In addition, he noted that the number of highly compensated workers might be higher than 145 because localities only have to list their top three earners.

After writing the story, Bakst emailed his spreadsheet with localization tips to members around the state as part of the package’s promotion three days ahead of publication. “This looks awesome … thanks,” wrote the editor of the Rochester Post-Bulletin, who used his own localized version on A1 and Bakst’s statewide story inside.

Bakst also earned front-page play across the state and those that didn’t run his story, ran their localized version using data Bakst had sent them – and credited the AP. The story ranked among the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s most-read.

For smart, enterprising reporting, and for going the extra mile to help members make the story their own, Brian Bakst wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Q&A: Uncovering the dirty cost of green energy

The Associated Press today published a major investigative report by Washington bureau journalists Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo showing that the ethanol era has proved far more damaging to the environment than the government has acknowledged.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they touched off a cascade of unintended consequences, including wiping out millions of acres of conservation land, polluting water and destroying habitat.

Ted Bridis

Ted Bridis

Here, Ted Bridis, the lead editor on the months-long investigation, describes what went into reporting the hidden, dirty cost of this green energy source:

What prompted AP to explore the topic of ethanol?
This year, among other stories, the Washington investigative team has been exploring some of the little-known costs and consequences of green energy. This project developed out of reporting by and conversations with Dina Cappiello, our excellent environmental reporter, who was “loaned” to our investigations team in the newsroom away from her everyday specialty beat responsibilities to work on some longer-term reporting efforts.

What were the most striking findings?
We were able to conservatively quantify how many acres farmers had set aside for conservation purposes but, driven in part by Washington’s biofuels mandate, had been converted to crops. The figure was at least five million acres _ more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined _ that have vanished on President Barack Obama’s watch.

We also conducted by computer a satellite-imagery analysis to show how many more acres of pristine grassland in the Corn Belt had been plowed into cornfields or soybeans since 2006, the year before the ethanol mandate passed. Insiders revealed to our reporters how the government’s analysis of ethanol’s carbon dioxide footprint was flawed and influenced by input from the industry. But in many ways no one in government is keeping track of its environmental toll.  

I also think one of our findings was how friendly and accommodating we found farmers and others in the Midwest when our journalists visited and explained the story we were investigating; many farmers, especially, explained they were genuinely conflicted by economic forces, chasing corn profits at the expense of continued conservation.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in reporting this project?
The tale of U.S. ethanol policy is complicated for many different audiences: farmers, motorists, policy makers, politicians, environmentalists, farmers, scientists and others. Turning months of reporting about agricultural and energy policies, scores of interviews and hefty data analyses into a narrative that readers will find compelling and informative is always a challenge.

How did you draw on AP’s resources — around the world and in the 50 states — to do it?
This project represents the efforts of dozens of AP journalists, photographers, video producers, data experts, editors and others who helped in its production

See the AP reporting here, which includes companion photos, video and a detailed interactive. Join a conversation about the AP’s reporting on ethanol today at 3 p.m. ET on Reddit.

Reporters measure impact of state’s gay marriage law

Seeking to measure the first month’s impact of the new gay marriage law in Minnesota, two resourceful AP reporters built their own database to find the answer. A staff memo from Managing Editor Kristin Gazlay explains how:

Gay Marriage Rush

In a Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013 photo, Rob Thomas, left, and Joe Strong join guests in a line dance following their wedding ceremony at the Nicollet County Courthouse in St. Peter, Minn. Their marriage was the first same-sex ceremony to be conducted in Nicollet County, located in south-central Minnesota. (AP Photo/The Mankato Free Press, John Cross)

Activists on both sides of the gay marriage issue in Minnesota spent millions of dollars battling over whether same-sex couples should have the right to marry. In the end, Minnesota legalized gay marriage, becoming the 12th U.S. state to do.

Once it happened, St. Paul newsmen Brian Bakst and Patrick Condon decided to measure the enthusiasm that created the law in the first place. No database existed, so they had to create one: The two managed to obtain records from 83 of the state’s 87 counties to report that fully one-third of the licenses issued in the first month since the law passed were going to gay couples. “This is the product of people who were living in the legal wilderness for so long, suddenly no longer being told their relationships are substandard,” a state senator who was a sponsor of the bill told the pair.

The story was a huge hit in Minnesota, landing on at least three front pages and featured prominently on Minnesota Public Radio’s home page. Bakst also did a segment on MPR’s midmorning public affairs show.

For aggressively seeking data to tell an exclusive and important story of their state, Bakst and Condon share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

AP is your all access pass to New York Fashion Week

Iman

Iman is interviewed at New York Fashion Week, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Nicole Evatt)

From the catwalk to the sidewalk, AP is your all access pass to New York Fashion Week, which runs through Sept. 12, and will be followed by events in London, Milan and Paris. Here’s a look at our multiformat coverage led by AP East Coast Entertainment & Lifestyles Editor Lisa Tolin and fashion writer Samantha Critchell:

-          AP will review and provide runway and celebrity photos from 60-plus shows.

-          Our journalists are producing 2 or more runway videos per day.

-          On Twitter, @AP_Fashion is providing color and the latest industry news.

Novek

AP’s Jocelyn Noveck interviews model Heidi Klum at New York Fashion Week. (Photo by Nicole Evatt)

-          A new interactive feature highlights behind-the-scenes images shot via Instagram by AP journalists such as entertainment producer Nicole Evatt and photographer Richard Drew.

-          All of AP’s fashion week coverage is accessible via AP Mobile, the award-winning mobile app and photo collections are available via AP Images.

“AP is always looking for new and innovative ways to cover one of the industry’s most-watched and highly anticipated events,” Tolin said. “The @AP_Fashion Twitter account and the Instagram project complement our comprehensive coverage and allow us to bring fashion fans behind the scenes and into the front row. ”

Meeting with Putin: the AP interview

Vladimir Putin speaks to John Daniszewski, the AP's senior managing editor for international news, at the Russian president's residence outside Moscow.  (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Vladimir Putin speaks to John Daniszewski, the AP’s senior managing editor for international news, at the Russian president’s residence outside Moscow. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Vladimir Putin “was in a talkative mood,” said AP Senior Managing Editor for International News John Daniszewski, who interviewed the Russian president Tuesday evening at the leader’s country home outside Moscow. “The interview stretched longer than promised. He was congenial and ready to address tough questions, including follow-ups.”

Daniszewski added: “He seemed at pains to correct what he felt were misinterpretations of Russia’s positions, on Syria particularly, but also on the Snowden affair and his relationship with President Obama.”

Daniszewski further described the exchange in a conversation on the BBC World Service’s “Newsday” early Wednesday. He told the BBC that Putin said he was not defending Syria per se in the current crisis, but was defending international law, as nations weigh a response to reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the ongoing civil war.

BBC audio playback starts at the 7:00 mark.

Coming on the eve of this week’s Group of 20 summit of nations, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin’s rare interview with an international news agency generated wide interest and pickup among AP’s member news organizations, broadcasters and other customers around the world.

AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said the interview “was the result of great persistence on the part of AP’s news team in Moscow.”

How a reporter discovered lobbyists get state pensions

A tip received in the New York Statehouse, shared with other AP statehouse reporters across the country, leads to the news that public pensions are available to hundreds of lobbyists in at least 20 states. A staff memo from Managing Editor Kristin Gazlay gives the backstory:

It was a tip that walked in the door. A former Albany journalist who stopped by AP’s New York Capitol bureau to say hello offered a jaw-dropping piece of information: He had just landed a job lobbying for the New York Conference of Mayors and was surprised to learn that the non-governmental job came with a special government perk — a full state pension.

So Capitol reporter Michael Gormley started to dig. At first, officials who oversee the New York state pension system told him they were unaware that lobbyists for eight private associations representing counties, cities and school boards were entitled to state pensions. So Gormley filed a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Law and found that the state indeed offers lobbyists that benefit, on the premise that they serve governments and the public.

Stephen Acquario

In this May 9, 2013 file photo, Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, attends a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Acquario is among hundreds of lobbyists in at least 20 states who get public pensions because they represent associations of counties, cities and school boards, an Associated Press review found. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Gormley also was able to obtain the names of people falling into that category, along with some financial data. Among the people pinpointed were the executive director and general counsel of the New York State Association of Counties, who already makes $204,000 annually and gets a company car, and New York Conference of Mayors Executive Director Peter Baynes, who makes $196,000 a year and also gets a company vehicle. Both will retire with full state pensions.

But Gormley didn’t stop there. With the assistance of East Desk editor Amy Fiscus, he enlisted his statehouse colleagues across the country to determine that a similar pension benefit is offered to hundreds of such lobbyists in at least 20 states. Several states are questioning whether the practice is proper, and two states — New Jersey and Illinois — have legislation pending to end it.

For thinking beyond his state’s borders to produce a smart piece of accountability journalism that once again underscores the value of AP’s statehouse reporting, Gormley wins this week’s Best of the States $300 prize.

Spain train crash: How a journalist’s quick thinking led to vital info

It was Spain’s worst rail disaster in 70 years. An express train careened off the tracks in a jumble of flying steel, killing 79 people. In chaos that followed one key question emerged almost instantly: Was the train driver speeding? Initial but unsourced reports indicated he was. Video of the crash from a security camera seemed to show this. But as in the immediate aftermath of most disasters, precise, reliable information was very hard to come by.

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This combo image taken from security camera video shows clockwise from top left a train derailing in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on Wednesday July 24, 2013. Spanish investigators tried to determine Thursday why a passenger train jumped the tracks and sent eight cars crashing into each other just before arriving in this northwestern shrine city on the eve of a major Christian religious festival, killing at least 77 people and injuring more than 140. (AP Photo)

Then, video graphics producer Panagiotis Mouzakis at the GraphicsBank in London had one of those brainstorm moments that remind us that journalism is about thinking –and sometimes counting, too. AP had obtained the security camera footage of the train rounding a bend, derailing and plowing into two pylons. Mouzakis realized that if he could figure out the distance between the pylons, he could calculate how fast the train was moving.

What followed was a true multiformat effort: First, Mouzakis advanced the video frame-by-frame, using the time stamp to figure out how long it took the train to travel between the first pylon and the second. Next, Madrid-based freelance cameraman Alfonso Bartolome Zafio, who was running the liveshot at the scene, estimated the distance between the two pylons. To back that up, Europe Desk editor Fisnik Abrashi used an AP photo picked up from a local newspaper to count how many cross ties there were on the tracks between the pylons, and editor Bob Barr, a railroad buff, researched the typical distance between ties on European railroads.

Each method gave AP a range of possible speeds: one was 89-119 mph; the other 96-112 mph. The speed limit was 50 mph, so AP was able to report far ahead of official announcements that the train was traveling about twice the speed limit. (Black box data released five days later showed they were exactly right: The preliminary investigation shows the driver braked from 119 mph to 95 mph in the moments before the crash.)

The resulting story was used around the world, including in The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Boston Globe and ABC News. The Daily Mail in Britain _ where news agency attribution is almost unheard of _ credited AP’s calculation, and both the BBC and Sky News cited the AP analysis in their nightly news programs.

CNN’s “Reliable Sources” highlighted the AP reporting. In his glowing account, host Frank Sesno called AP’s calculations the highlight of the week:  “In less than two hours, the AP went from video to story, providing vital information. For instincts, initiative and transparency in reporting, the AP proved itself a reliable source.”

For taking material everyone had access to, and finding a way to draw crucial conclusions from it at a speed that produced exclusive news, Mouzakis wins this week’s $500 prize.

– A memo to staff from Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Michael Oreskes