AP CEO welcomes DOJ’s revised media guidelines

The Associated Press today welcomed revised guidelines on how the federal government could obtain records from the news media during leak investigations.

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pruitt spoke on the subject of "Free Press vs. National Security: The False Choice." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press, delivers the keynote address at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting luncheon in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Pruitt spoke on the subject of “Free Press vs. National Security: The False Choice.” (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The guidelines, released by the Justice Department, revised steps announced last year in the wake of a public and media industry outcry over the secret seizure of AP phone records in May 2013.

“We are very pleased the Justice Department took our concerns seriously and implemented changes that will strengthen the protection of journalists for years to come,” said AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt.

AP General Counsel Karen Kaiser added: “These revisions advance the law significantly. In particular, the changes eliminate potential ambiguity of what constitutes newsgathering and help provide consistency in how the guidelines are interpreted across investigations and administrations.”

The AP, together with the Newspaper Association of America and the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, played a leading role in advocating for the changes on behalf of a coalition of news organizations.

In 2013, Pruitt had decried the DOJ’s seizure of the AP phone records during a leak investigation, calling the action  “unconstitutional” in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and warning it would have a negative impact on journalism.

AP’s industry leadership in challenging the DOJ and calling for stronger protections for journalists was recognized last year with a First Amendment Award from the Radio Television Digital News Foundation (RTDNF) and the Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo spelling out the new guidelines is found on the DOJ’s website.

Why AP didn’t run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo,  Stephane Charbonnier also known as Charb ,  the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo, Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays a front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

The attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris raised many questions about how news agencies handle controversial images. We answered some of them Wednesday in response to calls from reporters and bloggers. Below is a summary of the questions and our replies.

Did AP run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons mocking Islam?
AP tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation. We did not run the “Danish cartoons” mocking Muhammad in 2005, or the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the same type. While we run many photos that are politically or socially provocative, there are areas verging on hate speech and actions where we feel it is right to be cautious.

This policy is consistent with our approach to sound bites and text reporting, where we avoid racist, religious and sexual slurs.

But don’t such images and speech sometimes make news?
They do, and we may need to describe hate speech and images when they lead to attacks or arrests. But we limit ourselves to brief descriptions, often without the images or slurs themselves. Routinely publicizing hate speech and images can lead to a “can-you-top-this” situation where provocateurs produce increasingly offensive material for news media to lap up and redistribute, accusing them of censorship when they fail to bite. We don’t want to fan such flames.

We also believe we should not rotely transmit propaganda images designed to sow fear and terror. These could include images that display hostages in demeaning situations, prisoners being abused or the bloodied bodies of vanquished enemies. Sometimes such images, or crops of them, may be essential to convey an event.

On occasion we’ve run a few seconds of video of a hostage. We also ran the well-known photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But any such material requires discussion by our editors and a judgment that it is truly newsworthy. We never transmit such material simply because “it’s out there” and others are carrying them.

What about images mocking Christianity or Judaism?
We try to be even-handed. We have declined to run cartoons demeaning Jews and the Holocaust, although we have referred to them in stories when the reaction to them has made news. In the urgency of a 24-hour newsroom, some images get through despite our best efforts; we removed from our service some photos we put out showing a crowd in Afghanistan burning a cross to disparage Christianity.

These are AP news policies for the pictures we distribute in our news reports. In addition, the company has a separate commercial photo business called AP Images that, among other things, has an archive of 22 million photos, including AP pictures that predate our current editorial standards and pictures from many other photo partners. Sometimes photos that don’t meet our current editorial standards are found among those millions of pictures.

Thus, on Wednesday we removed from AP Images some Charlie Hebdo cartoons that had come from a non-AP source. We also became aware that a 25-year-old image of the controversial “Piss Christ” photo was among the photos there, and removed it. Of course, every removal is a judgment call, and we took some flak over the decision on “Piss Christ.”

We learned long ago that some of our news decisions will be controversial. While there’s certainly a slippery slope that leads to avoiding any image that could cause offense, there’s an equally slippery one that leads to suspending our editorial judgment and allowing our news service to be hijacked by whatever offensive image is circulating on a given day. Our best approach is to try to be as thoughtful and even-handed as we can, knowing we’ll sometimes be criticized for a decision not everyone likes.

But what about the censorship issue? Who is the AP to decide what images the world will see?
This question was more valid a couple of decades ago, when a very small number of international news agencies “owned the wires” that distributed photos around the world. If the agencies chose not to run a photo, few were likely ever to see it. Even at that time, we felt a responsibility to use our judgment and distribute only those photos we were comfortable with.

But now the censorship argument has largely evaporated. The most hotly disputed images of recent years can usually be found easily via search engines and social networks by anyone who wants to see them. In the Internet era, we are free to edit our news service in line with our own professional consciences and the valid needs of our readers and subscribers without people being able to claim we’re making some decision for the entire world. We have an editorial policy, and that’s what you get from AP.

AP statement on Mueller report

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll offered the following statement in response to a report from former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who was hired by the NFL to investigate how the league pursued evidence in the Ray Rice abuse case:

“We have reviewed the report and stand by our original reporting.

“The Mueller team did ask us for source material and other newsgathering information, but we declined. Everything that we report and confirm goes into our stories. We do not offer up reporters’ notes and sources.”

Read the AP news story.

AP’s long history of reporting from Cuba

As the United States and Cuba move to restore diplomatic relations for the first time in more than 50 years, a look at The Associated Press’ long and unparalleled history on the island reflects the tensions that have marked the relationship between the two countries.

Valerie Komor, director of the AP Corporate Archives, prepared this account of the AP in Havana:

A 1961 edition of The AP World, the AP company magazine, reported on staffer Harold Milks' delayed exit from Cuba after Fidel Castro took power.

A 1961 edition of The AP World, the company magazine, reported on staffer Harold Milks’ delayed exit from Cuba after Fidel Castro took power.

The Associated Press stationed a correspondent in Havana as early as 1870, when the Spanish authorities exerted complete censorship over all news dispatches. A seething General Agent J. W. Simonton, writing in The New York Times on March 16, 1870, declared “the business of the Company seriously embarrassed thereby.”

Francisco José Hilgert, who may have operated in secret for some years for his own safety, reported on the explosion of the battleship USS Maine on Feb. 15, 1898. During the ensuing Spanish-American War, a staff of about 20 used chartered boats to cover naval actions and carry copy to cable points in Haiti, Jamaica, Key West and the Danish West Indies. In 1916, AP announced a direct New York-Havana leased wire to serve its Havana newspaper members, which included El Mundo and Diario de la Marina.

Larry Allen and William Ryan were on duty on Jan. 2, 1959, when Fidel Castro’s rebels overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in a “blood-wet battle of tanks and guns,” as Allen described the scene. After Castro took power, reporting became increasingly difficult. As chief of Caribbean Services, Harold K. Milks, a veteran war correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief, ran the bureau from May 1959 until the spring of 1961. When the botched United States invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs began on April 17, 1961, Milks sought refuge in the Swiss Embassy until he and 100 others were flown to Miami a month later.

Shortly thereafter, Daniel Harker, a stringer out of Colombia, resumed reporting from Havana with instructions to “keep the AP doors open” and not antagonize the government. Ike Flores replaced Harker in mid-1965 and began doing interviews with Castro and his generals. Not surprisingly, Flores gradually became persona non grata and asked to be reassigned.

In 1967, John Fenton Wheeler took over. For a time, he seemed to be enjoying greater privileges. But after Castro directly attacked Wheeler in a speech, saying he had been reading “AP lies” since he had come to power, the end was just a matter of time. It came on Sept. 8, 1969, with a 3 a.m. phone call from the Foreign Ministry — and Wheeler found himself on a plane out of the country. “Don’t worry,” AP General Manager Wes Gallagher told him. “We’ve been kicked out of better places.”

During the height of the Cold War, AP’s Miami bureau made coverage of Cuba one of its priorities.

From 1961 to 1986, AP employed exiled Cuban newsmen to monitor, translate and write up the Radio Havana broadcasts.  In the summer 1965 issue of AP World, AP’s in-house magazine, the operation was described this way: “When Castro makes one of his four-hour speeches, the monitors take turns making notes. At the same time, the speech is taped as a backstop. Ted Ediger takes the reams of copy and cuts and molds it into shape for the wire. The radios are in the same room with WirePhoto. The bleep-bleep of the Wirephoto, the hysterical rantings of Castro and the rattle of typewriters blend into an unearthly racket.”

After 1969, it would be 30 years before AP could reopen an office in Havana, first because of Castro’s strictures and secondly because the U.S. government barred American news organizations from operating there. Years of effort by AP CEO Louis D. Boccardi paid off when the Cuban Foreign Ministry granted AP permission to re-establish a permanent presence in Cuba. Anita Snow reopened the bureau and was followed by Paul Haven (2009-13), Peter Orsi (interim) and Michael Weissenstein in 2014.

More great saves by AP staffers

Every few weeks we distribute to the AP staff examples of great saves by our staffers who protected us from hoaxes and inaccuracies. Here are some of the latest:

A SUSPECT SNIPER
The video looked like it had been shot on the front lines of Syria’s civil war. It looked so real that the Islamic State group’s official website posted it as a de facto event, which drove up its popularity. The footage opens with a young boy on the ground, apparently shot by a sniper as he attempts to save a nearby girl. The boy gets up after the first apparent gunshot wound and the viewer can hear distinct Syrian voices in the background celebrating the boy’s survival. Then, as he gets up and runs toward the girl again, he is “shot” a second time, a cloud of smoke billowing from his midsection as he falls forward. As impossible as it sounds, he gets up again, takes the young girl by the hand and runs out of view of the camera as more shots are fired at his feet. Millions of YouTube viewers watched and shared the viral content. Some other news organizations picked up the video and treated it as authentic. The AP did not. When the video emerged, Jon Gambrell and Patrick Quinn in Cairo were skeptical. They noted the quality of the footage, the steady camera position, likely on a tripod, and the clear audio. There was a lack of blood and the miraculous nature of the boy’s repeated survival. They decided to avoid the video. After the video had made its rounds, the BBC reported that the dramatic footage was actually shot in Malta, using professional actors, cameras and audio gear. The producers even employed Syrian refugees as the convincing voices in the background. The group that produced the film said they wanted to bring attention to children in war zones and presented it as real because they thought it would get more attention that way.

CALM DOWN, EVERYONE: PELE IS FINE
Soccer great Pele’s health had been hospitalized for treatment of a urinary tract infection. Suddenly, the hospital released an alarming-sounding statement saying the 74-year-old Pele had suffered “clinical instability” and had to be transferred to a “special care unit.” Some news outlets quickly filed stories saying that Pele’s condition had worsened and hinted his life was in danger. AP’s sports writer in Brazil, Tales Azzoni, decided to be careful with the hospital’s badly worded statement, especially because it wasn’t clear enough to allow us to say that Pele’s condition had deteriorated significantly. Azzoni was able to contact one of Pele’s spokesmen and it turned out that the former player was doing just “fine.” After Pele was released from the hospital on Tuesday, doctors confirmed in a news conference that his life was never in danger as suggested by many reports. Pele was eventually transferred to an intensive care unit, but it wasn’t because of any serious complications. Pele had already used his Twitter account to calm fears over his health, and in the news conference he said the illness was “a scare” but he never feared for his life. One of Pele’s agents wrote Azzoni an email saying that she was glad we reported it correctly to “calm everyone down!”

NOT A QUEEN PLOT
With Islamic State militants regularly threatening Western interests, the headlines seemed plausible enough: a plot against Queen Elizabeth II had been foiled in London and the suspects were in custody. It is true that the queen is a terrorist target, in general, and that she prefers light rather than intense security. It was also true that there had been terror-related arrests just days before the Queen was to lead a national ceremony honoring British armed forces members who had died in action. But it wasn’t true that the two things were linked, as one British paper reported, and others quickly followed. The AP held off and instead started to make calls. London’s acting chief of bureau, Greg Katz, contacted British intelligence sources at MI5, who told him that the reports were not true. The arrests, which we reported, may or may not lead to charges, and may or may not have been related to a plot on UK soil.

BEARLY REALISTIC
Caleb Jones at AP’s New York Nerve Center spotted video that had been posted to Facebook by an outdoors group in New York state. In the video, a mountain biker wearing a GoPro camera sees a bear charging toward him. The man speeds off, looking over his shoulder periodically as the bear continues to chase behind him. Finally, he comes to some brush on the trail, hops off his bike and watches as the large bear appears to be spooked away by what sounds like gun shots. The video was dramatic, though Caleb was quick to determine that the video shows a brown bear, not native to New York, and expressed skepticism in his initial email. East Assistant Regional Editor Jeff McMillan concurred that it seemed fishy and suggested that someone on the video team check into it. Video Content Manager Walter Ratliffe spotted other videos on YouTube that appeared to possibly contain source video from which a fake edit might have been made. Social Media Editor Eric Carvin noted that lighting on the image of the bear did not appear to match its surroundings and there were other video artifacts present suggesting an edit. User-generated content specialist Hannah Cushman noted that it seemed highly unlikely that someone would get off his bike in this situation. And finally Walter again checked out the group’s YouTube page and found a more obviously faked video of a puppy ice bucket challenge. The video has gone viral, but AP was quick to determine it is not real.

We salute these staffers for protecting AP’s excellent record for accuracy.

Doubling down on state government coverage

Building on The Associated Press’ unmatched presence in all 50 U.S. statehouses, we are adding to our competitive advantage by creating a team of state government specialists.

As announced today to the AP staff, the specialists will collaborate with statehouse reporters, as well as on their own projects and stories focused on government accountability and strong explanatory reporting. Their over-arching goal will be “to show how state government is impacting the lives of people across the country,” said Brian Carovillano, managing editor for U.S. news.

The California State Assembly met for an organizational session where lawmakers took the oath of office at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec.  1, 2014.  Both houses of the Legislature will reconvene after the new year. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The California State Assembly met for an organizational session where lawmakers took the oath of office at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Dec. 1, 2014. Both houses of the Legislature will reconvene after the new year. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Tom Verdin, AP’s administrative correspondent in Sacramento, will assume a new position leading the team of specialists full time. He’s supervised a number of high-impact projects, including AP’s coverage of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Joining Verdin on the team will be National Writer David Crary, reporters David LiebRyan Foley and Christina Almeida Cassidy, as well as Central Enterprise Editor Tom McCarthy.

The New York-based Crary is an expert on many of the social issues state governments are tackling, from gay rights to abortion and adoption, and he’ll continue to focus on many of those issues. Lieb has owned the state government beat in Missouri. From Chicago, McCarthy has been Lieb’s editor and partner on some of his best recent work, and he will serve as editor for many of the stories the State Government Team produces.

Cassidy has been AP’s state government reporter in Georgia. And Foley, based in Iowa, is among AP’s strongest watchdog reporters.

Here, Carovillano answers a few key questions about today’s announcement:

Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano (AP Photo).

Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano (AP Photo).

How will the state government specialists differ from the AP reporters already assigned to all 50 statehouses and state bureaus?
The team will complement what our excellent state government correspondents do every day across the country and allow us to bring extra reporting firepower in on the most important stories. Let’s say there’s a trend emerging from several statehouses that our folks on the ground identify. The state government team will work with reporters in those states — and with the data team, if necessary — to bring depth and a national perspective to that issue and show how it’s playing out across the country.

They’ll be a resource to our statehouse reporters looking for help broadening the scope of their reporting, and a projects team that will partner with folks in the states to pursue bigger and more ambitious enterprise on the business of state government. And the focus really needs to be on how that impacts peoples’ lives. We don’t cover state government for the state government; we cover it for all the people of the state. The message here is that state government coverage is essential to AP and its members, and we are doubling down on that commitment, which should benefit the entire cooperative.

How else has AP expanded and strengthened state news coverage across the country?
We’ve hired 13 statehouse reporters over the past year. A few of those are new positions; a few filled positions that had been vacant. We are and will remain committed to staffing every statehouse. And we’ll add about 40 additional contract reporters to cover legislative sessions next year, in addition to the permanent staff.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt has identified state news coverage as a companywide priority. What other steps are being taken to bolster AP’s state news franchise?
Well, we have made some hires in key locations. I mentioned the 13 statehouse reporters we’ve hired this year. We’ve also made hires on some essential beats, such as politics, immigration, courts/crime and education. Beyond that, we are really pushing our state bureaus to focus their time and effort on content that is exclusive to AP and that our members and subscribers can’t get anywhere else. That needs to be our guiding principle. We do that exactly as we always have: by developing sources and breaking stories, being fastest on big breaking news, and by providing explanation, analysis and depth on the stories that have the biggest impact on peoples’ lives.

To help the bureaus recommit to this kind of high-value content, we’re setting up centralized operations in each region to handle “shared” news from the cooperative. These are the stories and images we pick up from one member and redistribute to the other members in that state. We’re also going to be putting more resources into social media newsgathering, and especially user-generated content, in each of the four U.S. regions. This lets us be in a lot more places than ever before, but it’s critical that we do it without compromising at all on the AP’s reputation for accuracy and fairness.

Q&A: AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch

As food editor, J.M. Hirsch keeps The Associated Press’ global coverage of cooking and eating relevant, accessible and authoritative. He’s also the expert behind the popular food chapter of the AP Stylebook. Here, he explains what coverage AP served up to Lifestyles subscribers for the holidays and what to watch for in the new year.

AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch (AP Photo).

AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch (AP Photo).

What are the highlights of AP’s holiday coverage?
For AP’s food team, the holidays start in July. That’s when we start dreaming up delicious things for an entire season of holidays. From the usual treats at Halloween through three weeks of Thanksgiving offerings then right on through Hanukkah, holiday cookies and entertaining, Christmas and New Year’s. By the time the real holidays roll around, we’re pretty burned out.

Still, we had some delicious stuff this year. I loved Tyler Florence’s spatchcocked turkey, and I even served Yotam Ottolenghi’s roasted sweet potatoes glazed with orange bitters at my own Thanksgiving dinner. And if you’re looking for a last-minute project with the kids, it’s hard to beat Dorie Greenspan’s flawless take on sugar cookies.

Is it hot cocoa or hot chocolate?
All depends on how you make it. Hot cocoa is made using cocoa powder, while hot chocolate is made using melted chocolate. This was one of the fun things we covered in an AP Stylebook Twitter chat in November. All sorts of holiday food style terms. Even kicked up a little kerfuffle when I told folks our style is “baking sheet,” not cookie sheet (because it’s used for more than just cookies). And I’m hoping to add plenty of new food terms to the 2015 Stylebook (which comes out in May), including the difference between bruschetta and crostini, as well as why “preheating” an oven is nonsense.

Oh, and I’ll share my secret for the best hot cocoa/chocolate. I use both cocoa and melted chocolate. Heat 1 cup of whole milk (this is not the time to cut the fat) in a small saucepan, stirring frequently. Whisk in a few tablespoons of cocoa powder and at least 1/3 cup of semisweet chocolate chips. When the chips have melted, hit it with a tiny pinch of salt. Best. Cocoa. Ever.

FoodNetwork

Food Network star Aarti Sequeira (Photo courtesy Food Network).

AP introduced a number of celebrity food columns this year. What has the response been?
We have such a great lineup of celebrity food columnists. AP’s subscribers have really loved the fresh, authoritative voices they bring to our content. Sara Moulton’s KitchenWise gives home cooks the basic skills they need to feel confident in the kitchen; Elizabeth Karmel’s The American Table wows with all things Southern and barbecue; Melissa d’Arabian’s The Healthy Plate shows us how to eat better (and save some cash); and my Cooking on Deadline column continues to show busy families how to get big flavors on the table fast.

I’m also excited that in January we are launching a new column by Food Network star Aarti Sequeira. The column, called World’s Fare, will offer up weeknight-friendly takes on global cuisines. She’ll show us how easy it can be to liven up our cooking by using widely available ingredients from the grocer’s international aisle.

What food trends will AP be watching in 2015?
In the restaurant world, pop-ups will continue to change the landscape. Bigger names are getting into the game because it lets chefs take risks and try new things without committing to a space or concept. Scott Conant did this in New York in the fall as a test run of a new place he’s working on. We’re going to see a lot more of this.

We’ll also see more influence from the science side of cooking. It used to be mostly limited to avant garde chefs _ the so-called molecular gastronomy side of things _ but this year we saw more of the tips, techniques and ingredients showing up in more mainstream eaters and cookbooks. We won’t all cook sous vide, but we all can learn something from this approach, and people are catching on to that.

Hirsch is also the author of three cookbooks, including “Beating the Lunch Box Blues.” Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.

New AP tool helps journalists manage data

troy_thibodeaux_headshot

Troy Thibodeaux (AP Photo)

The Associated Press’ data team and developers from civic technology company DataMade have created a new tool to make it easier for journalists to add context to a data set. Here, AP Editor for Interactive Technology Troy Thibodeaux, who conceived and launched the tool called Geomancer, explains its potential:

Why did AP create Geomancer?
AP has been a pioneer in data journalism and is committed to helping journalists use data more efficiently to find and tell important stories. We won a grant last year from the Knight Prototype Fund to build an open-source tool to help journalists make sense of data by mashing it up with other data sets about the same geographic location.

For reporters who work with data, it’s a common and laborious task to look up population or demographic data about the counties or ZIP codes represented in a given data set. Geomancer puts this data just a few clicks away. Our goal is to remove the drudgery from data so reporters can focus on finding the story.

How does it work?
Currently, the Geomancer prototype includes two data sources: the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey (via CensusReporter.org) and federal contracts from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s USASpending.org. It allows users to find data based on 10 geographic levels, including state, county and congressional district. There has already been some community interest in adding new data sets and geographical types.

The Geomancer team has created a working demo (geomancer.io) to show the tool’s potential and simple instructions that any newsroom can follow to install its own Geomancer and build its own warehouse of geography-based data sources. The Geomancer blog at geomancer.ap.org includes links to example data sets for getting started.

What’s next?
We’ll be working to help journalists inside and outside of the AP use Geomancer, and we are excited to see what stories it will help them produce. We’re looking forward to getting feedback from users and will be exploring ways to refine the tool, which is in a beta version.

A scoop that surprised the experts

The following memo to AP staff from Senior Managing Editor Mike Oreskes describes how an environmental exclusive came together through the reporting of a European correspondent, joined by AP colleagues in Asia:

A scoop tells readers something they didn’t know. AP’s Karl Ritter went further and broke news so exclusive that even experts in the field were surprised. His story, this week’s Beat of the Week, disclosed how $1 billion in climate-change financing under a U.N.-led program was being used to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia.

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs.  (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

In this Oct. 18 , 2014 photo, fishing boat passes near a fired coal power plant on the river in Cirebon. The coal-fired power plant in Cirebon came online two years ago despite years of protests from environmentalists and villagers who say the plant is polluting coastal waters, killing off fish and crabs. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

The story broke as key players in the climate change community were gathering for a summit in Peru, and they reacted with surprise and concern. Coal, after all, is a major source of carbon pollution.

Even U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres acknowledged she was unaware that Japan was building coal plants with climate money, until she saw AP’s story. “There is no argument for that,” she told Ritter. “Unabated coal has no room in the future energy system.”

Ritter, the AP’s bureau chief in Stockholm, started with a simple goal. “I wanted to investigate where climate finance money was going because there didn’t seem to be any accountability in the UN system,” he says.

He began by turning to a non-governmental organization that tries to keep track of the scores of channels of climate finance, which is money flowing from rich to poor countries as a way to tackle global warming. Searching the group’s database, he found that Japan had provided funding for the biggest projects so far.

Turning next to the U.N. climate secretariat, he located an annex listing Japanese climate finance projects reported to the UN in 2010-2012. That’s where he spotted the “thermal” power plants in Indonesia.

When he realized they were coal-fired power plants, he thought there must be some mistake. He went back to the NGO and asked if they had any idea how coal plants could get on the list. They, too, thought there must be a mistake: “That can’t be right,” the NGO representative said.

“That’s when I realized we had a story,” Ritter says. “If even NGOs dedicated to tracking climate finance didn’t know about these plants, how would anyone else?”

He started researching the plants in question and found reports from Indonesia saying villagers near the Cirebon plant had protested, in vain, plans to build it.

Margie Mason in Jakarta then led a cross-format team that went to Cirebon in September. Villagers told her that since the plant was built in 2012 their catches of crab, mussels and shrimp had dwindled. Plant officials denied any environmental problems, though they acknowledged there may have been some inconvenience to local fishermen.

Next, Ritter needed Japan’s response. How did officials there justify counting Cirebon and two other plants in Indonesia as climate finance at a time when other developed countries were restricting public money for such projects, precisely because of their high emissions?

Yuri Kageyama and Ken Moritsugu pressed reluctant Japanese officials for comment. In the week before the climate conference in Lima, Moritsugu secured interviews with Japanese officials who not only defended the plants but said Japan will keep counting such projects as climate finance in the UN climate negotiations.

The story played prominently on abcnews.com, MSN News and Huffington Post, among others. Newsweek did its own piece on AP’s scoop.

The scoop rippled through the U.N. climate talks. Environmental groups at the talks demanded that  the Green Climate Fund exclude coal. Climate activists staged a protest against Japan’s coal funding at the conference venue. And the U.N. climate secretariat called a news conference to showcase its efforts to improve the rules governing climate finance.

“We need to define what is climate finance and what is not,”  said Seyni Nafo on the U.N. climate agency’s Standing Committee on Finance.

For a scoop that informed us all and really got the attention of the experts, Ritter wins Beat of the Week and this week’s $500 prize.

Editorials criticize FBI’s impersonation

The FBI’s recent admission that it fabricated an Associated Press story and impersonated an AP reporter during an investigation of bomb threats in the Seattle area continues to generate criticism of the agency’s actions.

USAT1“Catching potential bombers obviously is a good thing, but there are ways to do it without making news operations look like government shills,” USA Today said in an editorial today. “When journalists contact potential sources — whether by phone, e-mail or in person — they need people to trust that they are in fact reporters, not undercover cops.”

WashingtonPost“What was wrong about the Seattle operation was the potential damage to the credibility of the Associated Press by the creation of a false news account by the government and by the impersonation of a reporter,” a Washington Post editorial argued. “The technique threatens to undermine all reporters — not just those from the AP — who seek information from sources and represent themselves truthfully as independent journalists.”

Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer wrote: “Whenever police officers masquerade as journalists, they introduce doubt into the public’s mind about whether the next person purporting to be a journalist is actually a police officer or the stories in the news are really bait set by police.”

In Pennsylvania, The Scranton Times-Tribune Editorial Board said this: “Democracy works only with an independent press that is not controlled by the government. The nation’s Founding Fathers knew that. That’s why, right there in the First Amendment, it says that Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, of the press.

“It doesn’t include a specific prohibition against government agencies impersonating reporters. Perhaps the founders believed that their successors would have the good sense not to jeopardize the independence of the press.

“Recently, however, the FBI has decided to impersonate the press, thus diminishing the press’ separation from the government.”

In an opposing view published by USA Today, former FBI Assistant Director Ronald T. Hosko, now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said the FBI “takes seriously its use of sensitive operations,” adding that in the Seattle investigation “no law was broken, no policy was avoided, nothing was traded away with an ‘ends justify the means’ calculus.”

Meanwhile, AP is awaiting a reply to President and CEO Gary Pruitt’s Nov. 10 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey in which he asked who authorized the investigative tactics in 2007 and sought “assurances that this won’t happen again.”

Editorials also have appeared in The New York Times, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, The Spokesman-Review (in Spokane, Washington), The Repository (in Canton, Ohio) and other newspapers.