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

AP’s everyday work of seeking access to government information, with names attached

The rules by which journalists engage with government officials can sound arcane. “Background briefing.” “Off the record.” “Not for direct attribution.” But arguments over applying these rules are part of a struggle that really matters. Most democratic countries explicitly promise the right to speak and publish freely. But often only implied is the right to gather the information you want to speak about or publish, or to have someone gather it on the public’s behalf.

Which is why, at the AP, we see it as our everyday job to argue for access to the workings of government and the information government holds. Government officials increasingly offer to provide official information only on the condition that they are not identified as the source. These so-called background or off-the-record briefings are popular in government because officials can present information without taking responsibility for it. Without attribution it is hard for citizens to know whom in government to hold accountable. We believe anonymity should be reserved for sources who want to share important information with the public but could lose their job, or even their life, if they were identified. That clearly isn’t a risk for most government officials when they insist briefings be “on background.”

So AP journalists are instructed to ask that briefings be on the record. Sometimes they succeed. When government officials refuse, our journalists are instructed to use their best judgment about whether the information is important enough, and credible enough, to distribute despite the restrictions.

The struggle for access is not only about words. The White House often bars photojournalists from events with the president. The only images of those events are thus by government-employed photographers. You get to see only what the White House wants you to see. In those cases the AP generally declines to distribute the government handout photos, unless the restrictions were unavoidable.

The importance we place on being allowed to gather the news without interference was given a great deal of attention after it was revealed last month that the Justice Department had thrown an investigative drift net over the phone records of some of our reporters and editors to identify their sources. We protested, vehemently. As AP CEO Gary Pruitt said, this was an unprecedented intrusion and chilled our ability to gather news. The case was unusual, but our position flowed from the work we do each day to assure access to the workings of governments all around the world.

AP Pulitzer winners reflect on challenges, risks of covering Syria

The Associated Press journalists who won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography come from vastly different backgrounds, but are united in their mission to document the civil war in Syria openly, fairly and accurately.

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From left, Santiago Lyon, Rodrigo Abd, Muhammed Muheisen, Khalil Hamra, Narciso Contreras, Manu Brabo and Manoocher Deghati.

The team of Rodrigo Abd, Manu Brabo, Narciso Contreras, Khalil Hamra and Muhammed Muheisen spoke candidly about their experiences, living conditions and the backstory of some of their powerful images at a panel discussion for staff at AP headquarters in New York ahead of the Pulitzer ceremony on May 30. They were joined by Middle East Regional Photo Editor Manoocher Deghati and AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon.

Abd, who is based in Lima, Peru, but is of Syrian descent, said “going back to his roots” to cover this story was sad, but important. “We don’t do this for awards. We believe in journalism and the impact we can have with pictures,” he said.

Speaking about the importance of getting their images out to the world, Muheisen said: “If this picture doesn’t go out, it didn’t happen.”

 See a slideshow of winning images.

AP photographer: For a moment, hope in devastation

AP Photographer Sue Ogrocki has worked in Oklahoma for more than 10 years where she has covered about a dozen tornadoes. She was at the elementary school destroyed by a tornado and saw rescuers pulling children out of the rubble, capturing the key images of the tragedy. This is her account of what she witnessed.

Watch AP news video.

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Follow the latest news from Oklahoma.

Deported while unconscious: Reporter explains ‘medical repatriation’ practice

Last fall, an Iowa Supreme Court decision about the deportation of two Mexican men who were in the United States illegally caught the attention of Des Moines-based reporter David Pitt.

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David Pitt

The ruling noted, but provided few details about, an obscure process formally known as “medical repatriation,” which allows hospitals to put patients who are living in the U.S. illegally on chartered international flights back to their home countries, often while they are still unconscious.

Pitt sought more information on the practice. In interviews with immigrants, their families, attorneys and advocates spanning several months, including some conducted in Spanish with the help of his colleague Barbara Rodriguez, Pitt was able to explain the “little-known removal system.” Pitt’s tenacity resulted in a fascinating look (in text, photos and video) at how two of the nation’s key issues — immigration and health care — are intertwined.

The story received wide play around Iowa and reaction from readers around the globe. You can catch Pitt discussing the story Wednesday on NPR’s “Tell Me More.”

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In this Thursday March 7, 2013 photo, Jacinto Rodriguez Cruz, 49, leaves his home on a wheelchair with the help of his wife, Belen Hernandez in the city of Veracruz, Mexico. Cruz and another friend suffered serious injuries during a car accident last May 2008 in northwestern Iowa. After their employers insurance coverage ran out, Cruz, who was not a legal citizen, was placed on a private airplane and flown to Mexico still comatose and unable to discuss his care or voice his protest. Hospitals confronted with absorbing the cost of caring for uninsured seriously injured immigrants are quietly deporting them, often unconscious and unable to protest, back to their home countries. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Video journalist hightails it to the heart of disaster in Texas

With quick thinking and immediate action, an AP video journalist beat even the first responders to the scene of a disaster in West, Texas. AP Managing Editor for State News Kristin Gazlay explains:

Dallas video journalist John Mone got a telephone call from a friend in the small town of West, Texas, whose house had just been shaking. He checked Twitter, saw reports that a fertilizer plant had exploded and called the Dallas desk. “Go,” editors told him. So he went.

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John Mone

Because he was so quick to get on the road, he was able to get to the heart of the disaster, gaining access to first responders, witnesses and triage tents before authorities were able to cordon off the area. Austin-based legislative relief staffer Michael Brick wasn’t far behind, and Lubbock correspondent Betsy Blaney worked the phones.

Mone hightailed it down Interstate 35 fully expecting to be detoured to clear the way for response units. As he approached West, encountering the acrid smell of ammonia in the air, he was directed away from the blast site and to a triage center where all the witnesses were gathered –- and access to them had not yet been locked down.

He hit the record button on his video camera and didn’t stop rolling. He located people waiting for word on the injured, eyewitnesses wandering around in a daze and someone who had captured iPhone video of the explosion. Later, when police began to block off the area, he sneaked down a side road on foot with his camera, walked a mile and was able to film damaged homes.

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This Thursday, April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a nursing home, left, apartment complex, center, and fertilizer plant, right, destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Mone shared his interviews with desk editors putting together the mainbar, and shared a byline with Brick.

See his video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RqnLR-ZWGU

Read the story here: http://www.bostonglobe.com/2013/04/17/texas-fertilizer-plant-blast-injures-dozens/ytYc2CZkcuF8XJjqe6AFLO/story.html

The video of his witness interview was used 1,000 times by AP clients and, overall, video filed by Mone was taken by 2,600 times clients internationally. ABC News regularly used AP video in its updates.

For helping ensure the AP owned the story of the fertilizer explosion in a way no other news organization could match, Mone wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Behind the news of the marathon: data crunching and photo verification

Personal tales of Boston marathoners came together after The Associated Press analyzed images and data, including the finishing times recorded by chips on competitors’ bibs, to pinpoint some of the runners who were in the finish line area when the bombs went off.

AP has distributed photos taken by Massachusetts engineer Bob Leonard, whose images near the finish line clearly show the two brothers suspected in the April 15 blasts, 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in shootout with police, and 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, later captured. “They actually stood in that corner for quite a bit of time,” Leonard told AP.

Leonard was not the only picture-taker to help with images of the suspects. David Green, a businessman from Jacksonville, Fla., who ran the marathon, produced a photo in which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears fleeing the scene, though initially there was doubt as to its authenticity because of the very low resolution of the image. It made the photo appear to be a composite image.

When Green later provided the high-resolution frame directly from his cellphone, editors of the AP were able to establish its authenticity based on the improved resolution as well as the time the photo was taken. The AP has established an exclusive arrangement for distribution of the photograph.

A story about Leonard and Green includes a slideshow with 12 of their revealing images.

Ahead of prison, Amish community gives journalists rare access

By gaining the trust of an Amish community in Ohio, a resourceful team of multiformat journalists were given rare access to tell their story. In a memo to staff, Managing Editor for State News Kristin Gazlay explains:

It was going to be the last time the tight-knit community would be together, before five Amish adults — four women and one man — would report to prison for the hate crime of forcibly cutting the hair and beards of fellow Amish.

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Freeman Burkholder swings to hit the baseball during a farewell picnic in Bergholz, Ohio on April 9, 2013. A picnic was held for Burkholder and four Amish women who were sentenced to prison for their roles in a hair and beard cutting scandal against another Amish community. (AP Photo/Scott R. Galvin)

Cutting hair is shameful and offensive to the Amish, who believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they marry. Members of the insular group eschew any modern conveniences, rarely speak publicly and even more rarely allow themselves to be filmed or photographed.

But the team of Columbus reporter Kantele Franko, photo freelancer Scott Galvin and Washington video cameraman Dan Huff got an exclusive invitation to cover an end-of-school celebration, where children at old-fashioned schoolhouse desks sang in German, men played baseball in buttoned shirts and pants with suspenders — and members of the group heading to prison talked on camera about the sentences.

The Ohio AP had covered the case extensively, leading a defense attorney to invite them to the celebration, held early this year so the children could spend more time with their parents before they went to prison. The team worked to make the Amish feel comfortable, knowing that reporters and media equipment were an unusual sight. Franko persuaded the first interviewees to introduce the team to others, Huff explained the purpose of his microphones and the recording process, and Galvin wandered among the children so much that eventually even those who had shied away were smiling at the cameras.

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Amish children play on the teeter-totters prior to the start of class in Bergholz, Ohio on April 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Scott R. Galvin)

The resulting multiformat play was dominating: The main broadcast networks, MSN, Miami Herald, Denver Post and Washington Post all used the material, with many sites posting photo galleries. The package was the fourth-most popular on Yahoo. One of Galvin’s photos, showing a tiny boy among young men lined up at a fence, made NBC News’ The Week in Pictures.

See the coverage here:

http://tinyurl.com/cz3h3fb

http://tinyurl.com/cy5blaj

http://tinyurl.com/cn5g797

For expertly telling a story that required sensitivity, finesse and trust, Franko, Galvin and Huff win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Kristin

How an AP reporter found $50 billion buried in federal fine print

Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar

Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar

In the “Beat of the Week” memos to staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes tells the stories behind the top news of recent days. In his latest note, he lauds the persistent, meticulous reporting of Washington-based health care reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zalvidar, who also is advising AP reporters across the country in covering the rollout of the Affordable Care Act:

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar has covered health care policy for the AP since 2009, dominating with beat after beat after beat. He has won the respect of colleagues and competitors. He has produced ground breaking policy coverage, a model of the genre, and has been cited here 11 times with honorable mention for work that impressed the Beat of the Week judges.

But for all that, he has never won Beat of the Week.

Finally, his persistence paid off.

Alonso-Zaldivar was studying the fine print (something he does) for the Department of Health and Human Services budget proposal when one number jumped out: a projected $50 billion in new Medicare revenue over the coming decade. That was up from last year’s projection of $28 billion. When Alonso-Zaldivar asked why, neither the White House for its Office of Management and Budget had an answer.

He wrote a spot story pointedly noting the murkiness of the administration’s plans, while at the same time agitating with HHS for an explanation.

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Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, April 12, 2013, before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014, and the HHS. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Two days later, congressional Republicans challenged HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on the same points, and she gave a partial answer: The administration was planning to set up a new way to determine how much seniors pay in Medicare premiums, based on their incomes. It would clearly mean a cost increase for many beneficiaries, but there were no details about who, or how much.

Alonso-Zaldivar seized the opportunity to press his point again, telling his HHS contacts that he planned to put Sebelius’ incomplete answer on the wire.

One of those contacts soon popped a detailed data table into his email inbox, spelling out the details the administration had been reluctant to share. He was able to report exclusively that President Barack Obama’s new budget included a proposal to significantly increase the amounts paid by upper-income retirees in Medicare premiums.

AP was alone with the story throughout the weekend. Even the House Ways and Means Committee, which had challenged Sebelius for answers, read it first in Alonso-Zaldivar’s exclusive.

The story made scores of front pages, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Louisville Courier Journal, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Providence Journal, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was the lead story in a dozen papers. A follow-up humanized the proposal with the tale of a New Mexico retiree who has an income of $85,000 and would be hit by the increases, and felt penalized for her frugal retirement planning.

None of this was unusual for Alonso-Zaldivar, one of the relatively few people in Washington who has read the entire health care legislation, all 974 pages.

For this persistence and attention to detail, Alonso-Zaldivar wins this week’s $500 prize, his first Beat of the Week, recognition long overdue and now rectified.