Uninspected wells: Finding local dangers in a sea of federal data

A team of Associated Press journalists across the states worked together to break an exclusive national story and help member news organizations leverage data to produce unique, local reports tied to AP’s findings. In this memo to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains:

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In this June 9, 2014 photo, a petroleum industry worker stands on an oil and gas rig on a well pad, in New Castle, a small farming and ranching settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies, in Colo. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

The report from the Government Accountability Office was intriguing: The government had failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells on federal and Indian lands classified as potentially high risk for water contamination and other environmental damage.

But the details were missing. Where were these wells? And did the lack of inspections contribute to any environmental damage?

The Bureau of Land Management was reluctant to provide details, but Washington-based reporter Hope Yen, who broke the story on the GAO report, pressed the agency over the course of several weeks, citing the public’s right to know.

The GAO’s findings came as the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been increasing around the country. While fracking has produced major economic benefits, it also has raised fears among environmentalists that chemicals used in the process could spread to water supplies.

When BLM finally released the data to AP, it was in the form of nearly a dozen spreadsheets. Phoenix-based Interactive Editor Dan Kempton, a member of the data journalism team, consolidated them into two master files, allowing calculations to determine which wells on federal and tribal lands were considered higher risk for water contamination and other environmental problems, and whether or not they were inspected by BLM within the given time period, 2009-2012.

Kempton identified, and BLM later confirmed, that its data had duplicate entries and other inconsistencies. Kempton consolidated the duplicates and merged the missing entries to create the most complete and accurate list available of well inspection data. The consolidated spreadsheets were then distributed in advance to AP bureaus and members in states with drilling operations on public and Indian lands, so they could start working on localized stories to accompany Yen’s national overview.

But the data alone was dry. Absent was the human impact. What was the reaction of people living near these uninspected wells?  With Colorado among the top states with uninspected wells, Denver reporter Thomas Peipert and photographer Brennan Linsely literally knocked on door after door to gather reaction and get photos to illustrate the story.

The story was used on the front pages of more than a dozen newspapers from Denver to Akron, Ohio, to Williamsport, Pa., and Tuscaloosa, Ala. It was featured as a Yahoo showcase, and in the 24-hour period following its release, it was tweeted out nearly 600 times. It was also one on the most widely viewed stories on AP Mobile. About a dozen AP bureaus produced state separates, and many members did their own stories using data provided by AP (The Salt Lake Tribune, Times Leader).

It was yet another example of how data journalism offers AP an opportunity to work with its members to provide the tools for local, granular coverage of national issues.

For their enterprising and exclusive journalism, and for furthering AP’s efforts to help members localize our coverage, Yen, Kempton, Peipert and Linsely win this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Is it ISIL or ISIS in Iraq?

How best to refer to the al-Qaida splinter group leading Sunni militants in Iraq? ISIL or ISIS?

In Arabic, the group is known as Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The term “al-Sham” refers to a region stretching from southern Turkey through Syria to Egypt (also including Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan). The group’s stated goal is to restore an Islamic state, or caliphate, in this entire area.

The standard English term for this broad territory is “the Levant.” Therefore, AP’s translation of the group’s name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

“We believe this is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East,” says John Daniszewski, AP vice president and senior managing editor for international news.

The term ISIL also avoids the common misunderstanding, stemming from the initials ISIS, that the group’s name is the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” (“Iraq and Greater Syria” might be an acceptable translation, since Greater Syria also implies the entire area of the Levant.) But saying just “Iraq and Syria” suggests incorrectly that the group’s aspirations are limited to these two present-day countries.

ISIL is also the term used by the United Nations.


This note was corrected on June 18 to reflect that al-Sham does not include Iraq.

Dogged source work yields scoops on bridge mess

In a note to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explains how a reporter worked longtime sources to keep AP ahead on a significant state story:

When Delaware officials ordered the immediate shutdown of a bridge on Interstate 495 because its tilting columns presented a potential threat to drivers, correspondent Randall Chase and Mid-Atlantic News Editor Amanda Kell knew they had a major story on their hands. The route, which parallels busy I-95 between Philadelphia and Baltimore, was closed because columns supporting a bridge had tilted dramatically and an estimated 90,000 drivers a day were being diverted onto the busier highway.

AP correspondent Randall Chase walks on the damaged bridge in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

AP correspondent Randall Chase walks on the damaged bridge in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Chase and Kell, working in close concert with staff on the South Regional Desk, produced a week of insightful coverage that pushed authorities to justify their response to the crisis, pressed them to re-examine how the state inspects its infrastructure and beat the competition at the same time. The key to AP’s aggressive coverage across text, photo and video formats and its drumbeat of scoops was the stable of sources that Chase has accrued during his 13 years of coverage for AP in Delaware.

By often working late into each night and by arranging interviews with officials in advance of scheduled news conferences, Chase ensured AP was first to name the contractor responsible for dumping a massive pile of dirt under the bridge, which officials were blaming for the tilting columns. After days of pressing officials for their plans, Chase also broke the news that all bridges in Delaware would be inspected by the state and that Delaware will add examinations of the ground under bridges to its future inspections. His extensive interview with the engineer who discovered the tilting columns also led to a story that questioned the urgency of the state’s response and of its own official timeline, which until that point said the transportation department had been warned of the issue on a Friday, when in fact it had been warned a day earlier.  AP also was first with an acknowledgment from the state transportation agency chief that his department could have moved more quickly to examine the bridge after the engineer contacted officials.

Chase’s work landed in outlets including MSN and The Philadelphia Inquirer and AP was credited by The Washington Post, NPR and Tribune Co.

For aggressive coverage and working sources on a major story in his state, Randall Chase wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Bangkok bureau chief named Journalist of the Year in Asia

The Society of Publishers in Asia named The Associated Press’ Bangkok Bureau Chief Todd Pitman Journalist of the Year, in recognition of his work over the past 12 months, including gripping stories from Typhoon Haiyan and moving coverage of the travails of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Todd Pitman (AP photo)

Todd Pitman (AP photo)

He accepted the award at the SOPA annual dinner June 11 in Hong Kong.

Pitman’s work “represents the pinnacle of our profession and of our ambitions,” said Ted Anthony, AP’s news director in Asia, in a note to staff.

Earlier this year Pitman also received the Joe and Laurie Dine Citation from the Overseas Press Club of America for his reporting on the massacre in Myanmar.

Read more of his work.

Piecing together the story of a girl, 10, left in an African forest

Her name is Hamamatou Harouna. She is 10 years old and unable to walk because she has polio.

Amid the sectarian violence in Central African Republic, she managed to survive a rampage by Christian fighters on her Muslim village by fleeing on the back of her 12-year-old brother.

In this April 16, 2014 photo, 10-year-old Hamamatou Harouna smiles as she sits in a tent with other Muslim refugees on the grounds of the Catholic Church in Carnot, Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

In this April 16, 2014 photo, 10-year-old Hamamatou Harouna smiles as she sits in a tent with other Muslim refugees on the grounds of the Catholic Church in Carnot, Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Her story – one of heartache and resilience — was pieced together by AP West Africa correspondent Krista Larson, who notes in her report that hundreds of thousands of children have been displaced by violence in the country and hundreds have become separated from their families..

Larson told The Definitive Source blog that she researched Hamamatou’s story with the help of a Sango translator over a two-week period.

“I was in Carnot, Central African Republic, to do a follow-up story about the Catholic church that was sheltering 900 Muslims,” she said. “AP Chief Africa Photographer Jerome Delay spotted Hamamatou crawling through the mud on her way back from the communal toilets and snapped her photo. She stole our hearts with her determination and bright eyes.”

Larson continued: “I went to her tent with my Sango translator and we did a first interview. I contacted my editor, Mary Rajkumar, who gave me more suggestions for questions to ask and people to talk to. We then interviewed her several times over the next day or so, and then we went to her home village of Guen, where we learned more about the attack her family had fled.

“It’s been touching to see how many people have reached out to help Hamamatou despite a lack of international interest in the conflict ravaging her country.”

Efforts to provide for her long-term needs are ongoing.

D-Day account surfaces, ripped from the AP wire

Behold the first official AP account of the D-Day landings, reported by our chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher. Though the words he filed on that fateful day 70 years ago are part of the first draft of history, a paper copy, likely ripped off a click-clacking printer at AP’s New York headquarters (as well as in newsrooms around the world), surfaced this week in the voluminous AP Corporate Archives during a D-Day-related search.

Seen here, Gallagher’s story, complete with typo, begins: “American, British and Canadian forces landed by daylight in massive strength on the Normandy coast of France today and sped inland from quickly-established beachheads. Gen. Dewight D. Eisenhower told his troops this grand assault was a crusade which must bring “nothing less than full victory.'”

The original story of the landings at Normandy, written by AP’s chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher.

The original story of the landings at Normandy, written by AP’s chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher. See more of the story at the bottom of this post.

Gallagher was stationed at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces) in Portsmouth, England. His job was to take official military information and turn it into poetry, which he does here, as indicated by the red-penciling atop the page by Paul R. Mickelson, AP general news editor in New York. “Straight, factual, fast and superb,” he calls it.

At the end of Gallagher’s dispatch, which was his “second lead” of the unfolding story, is the signoff “DA1005AEW.” This coding includes the initials of the sending operator and the time: 10:05 a.m. Eastern War Time. That would have been 3:05 p.m. in England.

Gallagher (1911-97)  later became AP’s ninth general manager.

In all, 18 AP staffers “were assigned to various phases of the Expeditionary force news,” AP World, the company publication, later reported. “They were backed by ten desk men who pitched into the main and running story, reinforced by an elite team of photographers and artists … Copy flowed out. There were 40,000 words in the first 24 hours, all written by staffers on the scene.”

Also on June 6, 1944, daring cameramen were filming the Allies’ assault by sea and air, including the combat on the beaches. British Movietone News, whose current sales are handled by AP Archive, produced this vivid 10-minute reel of D-Day preparations and the onslaught that changed history.

 

The original story of the landings at Normandy, written by AP’s chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher.

The original story of the landings at Normandy, written by AP’s chief invasion correspondent, Wes Gallagher.

Taking measure of limited media access

In a note to staff, AP Vice President and Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano lauds New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire for strengthening AP’s fight for access to public information:

AP New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire discusses limited media access to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on WNBC's "The Debrief with David Ushery."

AP New York City Hall reporter Jonathan Lemire discusses limited media access to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on WNBC’s “The Debrief with David Ushery.”

On the campaign trail, Bill de Blasio promised to have the most transparent mayoral administration in New York City history. The cracks in that promise literally began forming on the day he took office, when his staff announced that the official midnight swearing-in would be “closed press.”

After hours of protests led by the AP, that restriction was eventually lifted. But the episode tipped [Lemire] that de Blasio may not be as media-friendly as he’d claimed. So Lemire began watching.

For months, he collected de Blasio’s official schedule, taking note each time his official events and meetings were either closed to the press or designated as pool only, with just one print reporter, photographer and video journalist allowed.

As the months wore on, Lemire noticed the frequency of de Blasio’s media restrictions was actually increasing. Several news organizations in New York also noticed and wrote op-eds. The time seemed ripe, at nearly five months into the new administration, for Lemire to tally up the de Blasio schedules he’d collected.

Here’s what he found: 260 total events, 53 of which were completely closed, amounting to 20 percent of de Blasio’s entire schedule. Add in the 30 more events that were pool only, and more than 30 percent of the mayor’s events were either closed or restricted to the media.

A mayor’s spokesman told Lemire that any restrictions on media access were due to logistics, not secrecy. But Lemire didn’t think it would be fair to run the story without de Blasio’s comment. When Lemire told him what the AP had found, de Blasio initially said transparency is often “in the eye of the beholder.” But he eventually acknowledged that “there is a whole swatch of information that needs to be available to the public and we need to continue to do a better job on that.”

His story was widely used in New York, with TV attributing to AP in their own reports, and several local reporters hammering de Blasio on the subject for days. [Time Warner Cable News] NY1’s Bob Hardt opined: “The mayor might want to realize that openness isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics.” And the [New York Post] said “if progressives are really acting — as they claim — on behalf of the people, why are they so keen on keeping a free press from seeing what they’re up to?” Capital New York interviewed Lemire on how he got the story. [Lemire also discussed his reporting on WNBC’s “The Debrief with David Ushery.”]

There was even some evidence that de Blasio was softening his stand two days after the story ran, adding “photo spray” access to a closed event, which had not been normal procedure before.

De Blasio’s tactics echo those of the Obama White House, which has routinely restricted access to the media and then released a photo from an “official photographer,” meaning an official image of the event is the only one that exists. AP and other news organizations have labeled these “visual news releases” and refused to distribute such handouts from the White House, and we are taking the same approach with City Hall.

Lemire’s disciplined beat reporting produced a nice accountability scoop and furthered AP’s leading role in fighting for media access in all the territories where we operate. For that, he wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

Injured AP correspondent analyzes swap for U.S. Sgt. Bergdahl

A revealing AP analysis about the history of talks leading to the release of U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, by correspondent Kathy Gannon, was published today. Gannon, who was shot and wounded on April 4 while covering the Afghan elections, is now recovering from her injuries.

Gannon, who has covered war and unrest in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than two decades, has reported extensively in recent years about intermittent U.S.-Taliban contacts and efforts to win Bergdahl’s freedom.

“Kathy Gannon was one of the first reporters to find out about the early U.S. contacts with the Taliban,” said AP Senior Managing Editor for International News John Daniszewski. “We are very happy to bring her expertise, knowledge and analysis again to the AP’s global audience.”

In August 2011, AP named three of the Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay now swapped for Bergdahl, who was said at that time to have “featured prominently in the talks” between the U.S. and a personal emissary of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The final list of fighters whose release was being sought by the Taliban appeared last June, as part of an AP Exclusive on the details of the proposed swap (“Taliban offer to free U.S. soldier”). They are the same five flown from Guantanamo to Qatar, a tiny Gulf Arab country that served as a mediator between the two sides.

Among the other stories by Gannon on the Taliban-Bergdahl discussions was one describing a breakdown in contact early this year.

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.

The story of a prolific pedophile: How AP’s investigation came together

The discovery of a teacher whom the FBI regards as one of the most prolific pedophiles in memory has set off a crisis in the close-knit community of international schools and prompted hundreds of people to contact the bureau, greatly expanding the potential number of suspected victims.

There were decades of missed opportunities to bring William Vahey out of the shadows, The Associated Press revealed this week.

This combination of photos provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows William James Vahey in 1986, 1995, 2004 and 2013. Vahey, 64, killed himself in Luverne, Minn. on March 21, 2014. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

This combination of photos provided by the FBI shows William James Vahey in 1986, 1995, 2004 and 2013. (AP Photo/FBI, File)

The AP report and follow-up drew on AP’s global resources, as explained here by Mexico City-based Michael Weissenstein, a lead reporter in the investigation:

When did the scale of this story become evident to you?
The potential scale of William Vahey’s crimes was clear starting last month, when the FBI announced that they had photographic evidence that 90 boys had been drugged and molested, and they were seeking information from students and others who knew Vahey throughout his 40-year career. The FBI quoted Vahey himself as saying to his boss, after he was caught but before he killed himself last March, that he had been doing this all his life. What wasn’t clear was the scale of the missed opportunities to stop Vahey far sooner. This became evident as AP reporters around the world dug into Vahey’s past, digging up records and finding and interviewing people who had known him over the last four decades.

What were the obstacles and challenges in reporting it out?
This was a story about one of the most sensitive and upsetting possible topics _ child sexual molestation _ that sprawled over four decades and 10 countries on four continents. Many of Vahey’s students from years ago now lived in other countries and never knew they had been molested. The parents of students who are still minors understandably were deeply concerned about their children’s privacy. And schools and law-enforcement agencies were reluctant to talk due to concerns about privacy.

How did the global resources of AP factor into the reporting process?
We had a reporter with local sources and knowledge in every region where Vahey had worked. Tami Abdollah in Los Angeles dug deeply into the records of Vahey’s 1969 arrest for child-sex abuse, finding detailed court files and interviewing retired law-enforcement officials who knew how the system worked at the time. Bureau Chief Josh Goodman in Caracas, spoke at length to parents and staff there, unearthing details and anecdotes that allowed us to draw a detailed picture of Vahey’s time in Venezuela. Reporters in London, Minnesota, Jakarta, Dubai and Nicaragua all contributed further essential facts and color. A story like this would have been impossible without the ability to instantly activate the AP’s network of experienced reporters across the world.