AP investigative reporter offers tips for seeking public records

The Associated Press is committed to fighting for access to information the public has a right to know. AP journalists across the country routinely file Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover critical information that the government would have preferred to keep secret. Washington investigative reporter Jack Gillum recently broke the story that Hillary Clinton used a private email server at her home, and he mined information on Instagram to track Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock’s spending. Gillum frequently draws from records requests to report exclusives. Here, he explains why they should be part of every journalist’s toolkit:

Investigative reporter Jack Gillum (AP photo).

Investigative reporter Jack Gillum (AP photo).

How important to your work are the Freedom of Information Act and open records statutes in the states?
Public records requests have been invaluable in my reporting. FOIA requests to U.S. agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration recently uncovered that the government knew local police in Ferguson, Missouri, put in place flight restrictions to keep the news media away during demonstrations following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Other requests can illuminate how government officials conduct their affairs, such as when we found senior U.S. officials using alternative email accounts – raising questions about their obligations to turn over documents to lawmakers and the public.

My request for 911 tapes made during the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings — the subject of a lengthy legal fight — revealed how public safety officials responded to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. The records didn’t come easy, with one state prosecutor opposing their release and telling a judge that neither I nor the AP represented the public. The judge ultimately sided with the AP.

How often do you file FOIA requests?
I usually file at least one request a week. That doesn’t include the countless records requests other AP journalists file with governments in the United States and around the world.

What challenges do you encounter in the process?
The federal FOIA is chock full of delays, leaving journalists to wait for information long after the news value of those documents has passed. The U.S. State Department, the defendant in a new FOIA lawsuit by the AP seeking documents about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has an average wait time of nearly a year and a half for certain requests.

Public records laws can vary from state to state. Some laws are antiquated and don’t properly address electronic records, leading to excessive charges (25 cents per page) just to view a public official’s emails or her schedules. Other agencies — state, federal or municipal — simply can’t or won’t perform adequate searches, especially with regard to databases and other forms of digital communications.

What advice do you have for other journalists who are learning to navigate the system?
Even if you’re not a lawyer, become an expert on your state’s freedom-of-information laws. Be prepared to fight any denial; don’t “file and forget” the request. And file requests often — not just when you need information on a big, breaking story. After all, governments produce a lot of material that could be newsworthy and important for the public to see.

Become familiar with electronic records and how they’re stored, especially since documents in manila folders are becoming less commonplace. Ask for database “record layouts” – a virtual map of a database that can reveal what information is being kept – and request other forms of electronic communication besides email (like text messages, chat transcripts or Twitter direct messages).

Dig into data journalism with AP

The Associated Press will be sharing expertise and learning from other data journalists from around the country at a computer-assisted reporting conference put on by NICAR and Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). The annual event runs today through March 8 in Atlanta.

AP Editor for Interactive Technology Troy Thibodeaux (AP Photo)

AP Editor for Interactive Technology Troy Thibodeaux (AP Photo)

“Every year we pick up tools and techniques that become essential to our data journalism toolkit. And every year, I personally steal a few teaching ideas that help me bring the material back to the broader AP,” said AP Editor for Interactive Technology Troy Thibodeaux. “All this, and we get to compare notes and ask questions of the people in other news organizations whose work most inspires and challenges us.”

Here’s some of the hands-on training AP is providing:

THURSDAY, MARCH 5

FRIDAY, MARCH 6

SATURDAY, MARCH 7

  • Getting started with SQLite
    This workshop led by Thibodeaux will provide an introduction to the world of SQL (Structured Query Language), “the lingua franca of relational databases.”

AP’s top editor: ‘Is the story worth the risk?’

In a time of increasing threats to journalists worldwide, Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said that news organizations need to carefully weigh the risks of reporting against journalists’ passion for telling untold stories.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Kathleen Carroll, executive editor for the Associated Press, Douglas Frantz, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs and moderator Diane Woodruff take part in a discussion on the growing threats to journalists worldwide, the role of freelancers and local reporters, and the rise of hostage taking at the Newseum in Washington Feb. 4, 2015.   (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists,
Kathleen Carroll, executive editor for the Associated Press, Douglas Frantz, U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs and moderator Judy Woodruff take part in a discussion on the growing threats to journalists worldwide, at the Newseum in Washington Feb. 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

During a wide-ranging discussion Feb. 4 at the Newseum in Washington, about the dangers of reporting in conflict zones, risks to freelance journalists and responsibilities for news organizations and governments, Carroll said: “I think the real question for all of us, as news consumers and as news employers, is: ‘Is the story worth the risk?’ And that’s a question we often ask ourselves both in the field and back at the home office. And the answer is sometimes, ‘no.’”

The panel, moderated by Judy Woodruff, co-anchor and managing editor of PBS “NewsHour,” also included Douglas Frantz, U.S. secretary of state for public affairs, and Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The panel followed a separate conversation with Diane Foley, mother of freelance journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by Islamic State militants in 2014, and Debra Tice, mother of missing freelance journalist Austin Tice.

A new set of safety guidelines for freelancers and news organizations that hire freelancers will be unveiled at Columbia University next week, Carroll said, adding that a number of organizations have been involved in their development, including CPJ, AP, Reuters, AFP and others.

In closing, Carroll called on news consumers to care: “This is work that people are doing at great risk to educate you, so give a damn. Read the paper, read on your tablet, engage in the news, be a citizen of the world. Make some effort to understand what it is that these people are taking great risks to bring you.”

Watch a video replay of the event.

Q&A: The changing market for video news

The Associated Press today released a report looking at the news market in the Middle East and North Africa and suggesting ways it needs to evolve, particularly when it comes to video. The report is the latest in a series of Deloitte studies for AP into video news consumption globally. (The first covered Europe and the second covered Asia.)

Here, Sue Brooks, director of international products and platforms for AP, explains why the market for video news has never been stronger.

What have been the most striking findings of the reports?

The big “ah-ha” moment for me was the realization that news junkies see video as an essential part of their daily news fix. Although there are a lot of variations in the data across markets, consumers were consistent in their demand for more high-quality online video content – and this is especially true of consumers who are interested in the news, generally.

Sue Brooks

Sue Brooks

The research shows that this group is more likely to access a story if it has an accompanying video, and that video consumers have a higher dwell time on news content each day. When we asked why, people told us it was because video helps bring a story to life and improve their understanding of it. For example, in the Middle East, a massive 83 percent of consumers find this to be the case.

This overwhelming demand for video presents a number of opportunities for us and our customers. It also highlights how critical it is for the industry to adapt. In Europe, more than a quarter of respondents said they’d go elsewhere if video wasn’t available at their preferred news source.

How and why has demand for video news changed?

Video news stopped being the sole preserve of terrestrial and satellite broadcasters quite some time ago and online and mobile video news are now the norm; in fact many of our video customers are now newspapers.

It’s clear that the need for video has continued to grow and has achieved ever-greater importance. We expect this will continue with the spread of smartphones and strong growth in tablets, as well as steadily increasing broadband speeds via fixed and mobile connections.

How is AP helping its customers evolve to satisfy this demand?

The primary goal of the research is to help our customers understand the changes in consumer demand, but it has also given us insight into what we need to do to help our customers meet the challenges facing them.

We are at the forefront of change and, of course, our customers need us to keep our products and services relevant. That’s why in 2012 we launched AP Video Hub. We needed to address the increase in demand from online publishers for video news with a service that was compelling and easy to use. These customers saw video as another critical element of their storytelling tool box, but before 2012 it was difficult for non-broadcasters to access and use AP video easily.

Since the launch of AP Video Hub, the platform has gone from strength to strength and we recently announced our Content Partner Offer, which allows third-party content to be sold via the platform. The first partner to go live was Newsflare, an online video news community for user-generated video, which adds a new dimension to the site and meets an increasing demand for this type of content.

We also launched a new video service in the Middle East earlier this year to meet the insatiable demand for news in the region, offering customers more unique video content centered on the news that matters most to consumers there. Our Deloitte research showed that, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, Middle East consumers value trusted news sources – particularly when it comes to video. We want to ensure that our customers are in a position to provide their own customers exactly what they need.

AP top editor urges journalists to renew fight for access

AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll addresses a gathering of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Monday, May 19, in New York. (Photo by ©PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM)

AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll addresses a gathering of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Monday, May 19, in New York. (Photo by ©PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM)

Kathleen Carroll, senior vice president and executive editor of The Associated Press, called on fellow journalists to remain vigilant in pressing government and institutions for access to public information during an address to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on Monday in New York.

The event honored top journalists and executives from The New York Times, The Miami Herald, WETA and BakerHostetler for their efforts to defend the First Amendment and the public’s right to know.

“The fights we wage here are administrative parlor games compared to what happens in the many countries where officials intimidate, jail, torture and murder journalists without fear of consequence,” Carroll said. “Those brave colleagues — and they are your colleagues — are fighting for even a sliver of the freedoms that journalists in the United States were handed at the nation’s birth. We have no right to squander those freedoms.”

Carroll urged fellow journalists to deepen their commitment to the fight for access and laid out  practical steps for newsrooms:

  • Make sure that everyone in your newsroom understands the open meetings and records laws in place for all the entities they cover and, more important, they are using them robustly every single day. Don’t segregate that knowledge to “the FOIA person.” Make it a core skill for every editor talking with field journalists.
  • Set aside competitive issues when there’s a fight for access. We can and do succeed when we join the fight together. And don’t lose sight of the real goal, which is open access, not whose turn it is to run the media coalition meeting.
  • And, if you have connections to journalism schools insist that the students know their rights and — this is really important — that they have spent extensive time actually exercising those rights. A semester with a hardback media law book isn’t nearly enough.

Read the full text of Carroll’s remarks.

What does it take to cover big-time sports?

Ferrara_Lou

AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara

So you want to be a sports writer? Start with a hunger for news.

That was the message AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara delivered to aspiring journalists gathered at the College Media Association’s Spring National Convention in New York on Thursday.

Ferrara, fresh from leading AP’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, stressed the importance of strong newsgathering skills and explained how news reporting underpins stories from the slopes and the skating rink:

“When I look in the very near past at the Sochi games, the sports and events themselves were almost a backdrop to the bigger story. Russia. Vladimir Putin. Security. Pussy Riot. Gay rights. Construction problems. Ukraine. And then there were other threads that got more attention than the game stories we wrote: Accessibility for the disabled. A worker hit by a bobsled. A malfunctioning Olympic ring that the world saw but Russians did not. How the IOC restricts athlete endorsements during the games. Or, how social media is part of the fabric of an Olympian’s celebrity.”

Ferrara also highlighted the accomplishments of a number of AP journalists, including a Texas Statehouse reporter who has carved out a niche beat covering Lance Armstrong (though he’s never gone to the Tour de France), a London-based sports editor who regularly breaks news about the International Olympic Committee and a sports writer covering Penn State who ensured AP was the first news agency to accurately report when Joe Paterno had died.

As a manager, Ferrara said he’s looking for smart reporters “who can identify a news story when they see it happening around the sport they are covering.”

Read his full remarks, including tips for being the next great sports writer, on the Poynter Institute’s website.

Visit AP at ONA in Atlanta

Kent_ONA

AP Standards Editor Tom Kent helps lead a break out session for an ethics panel at ONA. (Photo by Fergus Bell)

The Associated Press is joining digital journalists from around the country at the 2013 Online News Association conference in Atlanta, which runs today through Oct. 19. Here’s a rundown of where you’ll find AP:

October 17:

  • Standards Editor Tom Kent (@tjrkent) and International Social Media Editor Fergus Bell (@fergb) will participate in a discussion about an online code of ethics from 2:45 p.m. – 3:45 p.m. ET.

October 18:

  • Minkoff teams up with ProPublica to give a workshop from 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. ET on how reporters can find hidden structured data online to both drive and supplement stories, using non-programmatic tools.
  • Stop by the AP table from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. ET for a sneak peak at new AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) products that are coming soon.

And looking ahead to 2014, you can also stop by the AP table to learn more AP’s Election services.