Behind the Sochi scene with AP

As the excitement of the Winter Games unfolds, AP journalists are providing breaking news and images and crucial context for customers around the world.

“The AP team has been tireless,” AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara said from Sochi. “They aren’t just covering the games — they are telling stories that no one else has, with a global perspective and in video, text, audio and stunning photos. Credit goes to the AP journalists and the technology team.”

From laying cable on snowy mountains and testing remote cameras to securing exclusive interviews and capturing iconic moments, here are a few highlights of AP reporters, editors, visual journalists and technicians at work behind the Sochi scene:

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  • With the threat of terrorism looming over the games, authorities said they would clamp down on travelers being able to bring liquids into Russia. Karl Ritter, Stockholm bureau chief working at the Olympics, kept AP ahead of the competition with a story about how easy it was to bring banned carry-on items into Sochi.
  • Despite complaints of stray dogs and unfinished hotels, AP’s Jim Heintz, a Westerner who’s lived in Russia for 15 years, concluded that the games reveal “some promising signs for the country.”
  • When a glitch caused one of the Olympic rings not to open during the opening ceremony Moscow business reporter Nataliya Vasilyeva quickly confirmed that Russian TV viewers saw a rehearsal reel that showed all of the rings working – not the glitch witnessed by the stadium crowd.
  • And David Goldman, an AP photographer based in Atlanta, was a pool photographer in the VIP room with Russian President Vladimir Putin when it happened. What did Putin see? It turns out, he didn’t see the problem either, as AP was first to determine from Goldman’s images.

Follow AP staff at the Olympics in Sochi on this Twitter list and learn more about AP’s coverage in this video with Global Sports Editor Michael Giarrusso.

Paddling in sludge to get the story

In an era of smartphones and social media, an AP team opted for a more rudimentary tool to get the story: a canoe. The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes describes how AP journalists paddled into the middle of a river to get a firsthand look at a coal-ash spill in North Carolina, determine the scope of the mishap and keep AP ahead of the competition:

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What’s the most important word in journalism? How about “go.” Sometimes, you just have to go there. Even when there is out in the middle of a dirty river best reached by canoe.

That’s just what Michael Biesecker, Raleigh newsman, and Gerry Broome, Raleigh photographer, did when they sensed that the impact of a big coal-ash spill at a Duke Energy power plant in Eden, N.C., could be much worse than anyone was letting on. Turned out they were right. They could see that plainly when they paddled out into the middle of the ash-choked Dan River.

Biesecker had hit upon the idea of using the canoe – his canoe, by the way – as he and Carolinas News Editor Tim Rogers talked over the best ways to examine exactly what the spill had done to the river. Biesecker loaded it onto his car, and they were off. While he and Broome were putting it in the river, a man affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliance, the environmental group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., offered to go with them in his own canoe. They agreed and he showed them to some places along the river.

Back at the spill site, Duke Energy officials and state regulators were trying to downplay the effects even as the river turned a deathly looking grey. Biesecker and  Broome started to find the elements of a very different story when they hit the river, the only journalists to do so at that point.

From the canoe, Biesecker was able to report that downstream of the spill, gray sludge was several inches deep. That became evident when a paddle was pushed down into the muck. In addition, the AP team saw that the riverbank was coated for more than two miles. And when the Dan crested overnight, a distinctive gray line stood in contrast to the brown bank, “like a dirty ring on a bathtub.”

Their reporting put the AP ahead on the extent and immediate effects of the spill even as hundreds of Duke workers scrambled to plug a hole in a pipe at the bottom of the 27-acre pond where the toxic ash had been stored. Up to 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water had spilled into the river.

More would be revealed in test results and court filings over the next four days, as Biesecker and Mitch Weiss, Charlotte correspondent, kept the AP reporting well ahead. Biesecker followed with a comprehensive story on a dispute over arsenic levels in the river downstream from the spill. He and Weiss then provided with a look at how the state was acting to try and shield Duke from federal lawsuits over the coal ash sites the company long had insisted were safely engineered and maintained.

The eyewitness on-the-river story and Broome’s photos played well across the state and around the country, caught the attention of national environmental groups. The ensuing AP reporting on the spill was placed prominently even on the site of the Charlotte Observer, which has assigned a reporter to cover just the spill.

The AP scoops also spurred Duke to share their testing results with us. In addition, after not addressing the spill for much of a week, Gov. Pat McCrory went to the spill site the day after we asked him why he had not been there yet.

This week, federal authorities launched a criminal investigation into the spill, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh issuing subpoenas seeking records from both Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources related to the Dan River incident and the state’s oversight of the company’s 30 other coal ash dumps in North Carolina.

For paddling further than the competition to get their story, Biesecker, Broome and Weiss share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

“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)

AP reacts to alteration of photo

Mideast Syria

Above is the original photo taken by Contreras and below is the altered version that AP distributed.

The Associated Press has ended its ties with Narciso Contreras, a freelance photographer who has worked for AP in the Middle East, following his recent admission that he altered a photo that he took last September in Syria.

The action involved the removal of a video camera seen in a corner of a frame showing a Syrian opposition fighter taking cover during a clash with government forces. The alteration violates AP’s News Values & Principles. This code of AP standards says: “AP pictures must always tell the truth. We do not alter or digitally manipulate the content of a photograph in any way … No element should be digitally added to or subtracted from any photograph.”

“AP’s reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions in violation of our ethics code,” said Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon. “Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable and we have severed all relations with the freelance photographer in question. He will not work for the AP again in any capacity.”

Contreras was among the five photojournalists whose images of the Syrian civil war in 2012 earned AP the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in the spring of 2013. The image that he subsequently altered was taken on Sept. 29, 2013.

AP has notified the Pulitzer board that an image taken a year after the prize was awarded was flawed, but that none of the images in AP’s prize entry, including six by Contreras, were compromised in any way. After re-examining nearly 500 other photos by Contreras distributed by AP, Lyon said he was satisfied that no other alteration took place. However, consistent with AP’s standards and policies, all of Contreras’ photos for AP will no longer be available for commercial licensing.

AP’s story about the incident can be read here.

Pausing to see the world

In fast-paced Tokyo, a pause will be rewarded with “A View of Daily Life” around the world.

A man walks in front of the entrance to the AP photo exhibition at the Gyoko-dori Underground Gallery in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

A man walks in front of the entrance to the AP photo exhibition at the Gyoko-dori Underground Gallery in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

“A View of Daily Life” is a display of Associated Press photos from 31 countries newly installed in Gyoko-dori Underground Gallery, located in Marunouchi, one of Tokyo’s central business and entertainment hubs.

The Japanese paper Sankei Express has reported on the exhibit, which runs through April 22. Admission is free.

The new exhibit follows another international photo show that AP presented in the gallery in 2012-2013.

A man looks at a photograph at the AP Photo exhibition at Tokyo Station gallery in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

A man looks at a photograph at the AP photo exhibition at the Gyoko-dori Underground Gallery gallery in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

A Q&A with AP’s health law expert

Viewers of C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” today got the chance to interact with Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, The Associated Press’ expert on the rollout of the nation’s new health insurance system. During the 45-minute segment, he took questions from callers and discussed trends in national health care spending and health law costs.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Among the key points he underscored:

  • Health care costs are rising, but not as fast as they used to. “It’s rising more or less in line with the overall growth of the economy, which is, if you think of it, a lot of money that the U.S. still spends for health care, but it becomes more affordable when that bill is rising more or less in line with the growth of the economy rather than galloping ahead,” he said.
  • The new law may leave some Americans who have a serious chronic illness “underinsured” because their annual out-of-pocket costs could still be high.
  • The law has varying effects across the states. For example, 25 states and the District of Columbia have decided to expand Medicaid, but the other 25 have not, which can impact health insurance affordability for low-income patients.

AP, which has reporters in all 50 states — a footprint unmatched by any other news organization — is providing comprehensive coverage and support for member news organizations in localizing stories as the law is being implemented across the states.

Guttenfelder is TIME’s Instagram Photographer of the Year

David Guttenfelder, AP’s chief photographer in Asia, can add TIME magazine’s Instagram Photographer of the Year to the myriad accolades he’s received throughout his career.

In this January 15, 2013 photo taken with an iPod Touch and originally posted to Instagram from Pyongyang, a woman walks on a Pyongyang street in front of the pyramid-shaped 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, which North Korea began building in 1987 and it is yet to be complete. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

In this January 15, 2013 photo taken with an iPod Touch and originally posted to Instagram from Pyongyang, a woman walks on a Pyongyang street in front of the pyramid-shaped 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, which North Korea began building in 1987 and it is yet to be complete. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Guttenfelder’s images snapped on Instagram, including many taken during his visits to North Korea, generated particular fascination in 2013. In fact, Guttenfelder’ work on Instagram was featured by media outlets ranging from the CBS Evening News to National Geographic to Mashable to Wired.

His Instagram feed has more than 235,000 followers. That’s a number that’s likely to grow with endorsements such as this one from WNYC radio, which tweeted: “PSA: Follow [David Guttenfelder] on Instagram, he’s posting amazing photos from North Korea. http://wny.cc/1bSzI4V  pic.twitter.com/Sx15rbVlzb.”

Working for the only western news organization with a full-time, multiformat bureau in Pyongyang, Guttenfelder has used his unprecedented access to bring a rare view of the reclusive country to the rest of the world, capturing what TIME called “striking, intimate pictures.”

“Nobody knows anything about [North Korea] and what it looks like,” Guttenfelder told TIME. “I feel like there’s a big opportunity and a big responsibility.”

Guttenfelder’s images are available via AP Images. Follow him on Instagram.

Why AP is publishing story about missing American tied to CIA

The Associated Press today is publishing an article about serious blunders at the Central Intelligence Agency and an effort to cover them up. At the heart of the story is a retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who was recruited as a spy by a rogue group of analysts inside the CIA. Without any authority to do so, the analysts sent Levinson into Iran, where he disappeared in 2007.

His condition and whereabouts are not known and the Iranian government says it has no information.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explains why AP decided to publish this story:

Publishing this article was a difficult decision. This story reveals serious mistakes and improper actions inside the U.S. government’s most important intelligence agency. Those actions, the investigation and consequences have all been kept secret from the public.

Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can. This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.

The AP has been seeking information on Levinson’s whereabouts from governments, agencies and any other source possible for several years. Government officials tell us that they, too, have hit a wall, though their efforts continue.

In the absence of any solid information about Levinson’s whereabouts, it has been impossible to judge whether publication would put him at risk. It is almost certain that his captors already know about the CIA connection but without knowing exactly who the captors are, it is difficult to know whether publication of Levinson’s CIA mission would make a difference to them. That does not mean there is no risk. But with no more leads to follow, we have concluded that the importance of the story justifies publication.

TIME names Muhammed Muheisen best wire photographer of 2013

Calling his work “indispensable for news outlets the world over,” TIME magazine today named Associated Press photographer Muhammed Muheisen the best wire photographer of 2013.

Pakistan's Chief Photographer Muhammed Muheisen shows Afghan refugee children how the camera works, in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Nathalie Bardou)

Pakistan’s Chief Photographer Muhammed Muheisen shows Afghan refugee children how the camera works, in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Nathalie Bardou)

Muheisen, who is based in Islamabad, has captured images of both daily life and of conflict in countries throughout the region. He’s won numerous awards throughout his career and was part of the team that earned the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography documenting the civil war in Syria.

“Viewers everywhere are richer for Muheisen’s compassion, his devotion to his craft and his unwavering, unblinking engagement with the lives and the issues around him,” TIME said.

The magazine also noted that his pictures have appeared more often than those from any other photographer this year in its LightBox “Pictures of the Week” feature.

TIME is not the only publication to highlight his tremendous work. New York Times “Lens” blog editor James Estrin recently tweeted that images by Muheisen had been featured 197 times.

“Muhammed is an extremely talented photographer who time after time manages to win the trust of his subjects in order to record scenes as though he were invisible,” said Santiago Lyon, AP vice president and director of photography. “His understanding and use of light is exquisite.”

TIME also noted the “outstanding work over the past 12 months” by AP photographers David Guttenfelder and Jerome Delay.

See a collection of Muheisen’s work on APImages.com, and watch him discuss his work in Syria.