“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.

AP “flashes” – what they’re all about

Mandela Flash

The “flash” we sent last week on Nelson Mandela’s death brought a new flurry of attention to AP flashes. What are they and how often do we send them?

A flash is our first word of a breaking story of transcendent importance, a story we expect to be one of the very top stories of the year. We average one or two flashes a year. They’re never more than one sentence, and frequently very condensed: “Bells ringing signaling election of a pope.”

In the old days when AP subscribers received news over teletype machines, a flash rang a series of bells on the machine, sending editors rushing to see what was happening. Usually there were 10 to 15 bells for a flash, but AP teletype operators had to type a “bell” symbol to trigger each ring, and in the excitement of a big story the number could vary.

Kennedy Flash

Today, AP editors still put a “flash” designation on stories (by clicking a “flash priority” button on our editing screens). That marks the item electronically as being a flash and may insert the word “FLASH” into the story as well. But subscribers set their computer systems to react to that code in different ways. Some systems sound an audible alarm or pop up the flash in the middle of the editor’s screen. Other systems may simply move the flash into the queue of other urgent stories. (AP identifies less transcendent, but still urgent, breaking news as “APNewsAlerts” without the flash designation.

Sometimes we know in advance that a story will merit a flash. This was the plan for Nelson Mandela’s death. But big news can happen without warning. When the United States killed Osama bin Laden and Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign, editors decided on the spot that a flash was warranted.

Here are some of our other flashes from the past 10 years:

_ Nov. 6, 2012 – Barack Obama re-elected president

_ Dec. 18, 2011 – North Korea says supreme leader Kim Jong Il has died

_ Feb. 11, 2011 – Egyptian VP says President Hosni Mubarak steps down

_ Aug. 16, 2008 – Michael Phelps wins record eighth gold medal at Beijing Olympics

_ Feb. 19, 2008 – Official media says Fidel Castro resigns presidency

_ Dec. 27, 2007 – A party aide and a military official say Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has died following a suicide bombing

_ Oct. 14, 2003 – China launches manned spacecraft

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – Second World Trade Center tower collapses

_ Sept. 11, 2001 – One World Trade Center tower collapses

Executive editor on why AP sought Newtown 911 tapes

The Associated Press sought the 911 calls made during the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed 20 children and six educators. On Wednesday, the calls were posted on the town’s website after AP prevailed in a monthslong legal effort to obtain them.

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained why the AP wanted to review the tapes as follows:

“We all understand why some people have strong feelings about the release of these tapes. This was a horrible crime. It’s important to remember, though, that 911 tapes, like other police documents, are public records. Reviewing them is a part of normal newsgathering in a responsible news organization.”

“Everyone knows what happened on that awful day. What we still don’t understand is why it happened. Perhaps we never will. But it’s our job to ask questions and gather facts for stories that seek to understand why.”

Carroll also discussed why AP pursued a legal challenge on the BBC World Service.

Read the AP news story.