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.

‘Electronic shoe leather': How AP found, verified images of train crash

The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explains how AP sought and verified compelling visuals in the immediate aftermath of Sunday morning’s deadly train crash in New York:

The technology may be new but the goal is eternal: Get verifiable visuals and eyewitness accounts as quickly as possible when news breaks.

The AP accomplished just that after a Metro-North commuter train careened off the rails – thanks to fast and smart work by Caleb Jones of the Nerve Center, who harnessed social media to help AP tell the story of the deadly accident with photos, video, sound and text. Call it electronic shoe leather. Caleb tracked down sources and verified that they were who they said they were and had seen what they said they saw. He did it all with accuracy and speed.

Caleb Jones

Caleb Jones

First word of the Bronx derailment came shortly after the 7:20 a.m. incident, when Photos’ David Boe alerted the Nerve Center to a call from a former AP staffer who had heard scanner traffic. Jones first alerted the East Desk, then launched a search of social media.

He found that two nearby residents had posted pictures, and sent out Twitter messages to both: “Hello. Are you on the scene? Are you available to speak with The Associated Press?”

The first to respond, Rebecca Schwartz, did not have usable photos; Jones passed her along to the East Desk, and she provided the first eyewitness account of the derailment’s aftermath.

“You could see multiple train cars off of the rails, including one train car – I couldn’t tell from where I was whether it was right into the water or just out of the water,” she said.

Edwin Valero had posted a better photo, but the accident scene, as shot from his apartment window, was still largely obscured by trees. Jones asked him if he had more, and he did – from a better location on a nearby bridge.

Cars from a Metro-North passenger train are scattered after the train derailed in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Edwin Valero)

Cars from a Metro-North passenger train are scattered after the train derailed in the Bronx neighborhood of New York, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Edwin Valero)

The train, all of its eight cars knocked from the tracks, had stopped just short of the water. (Original eyewitness reports said cars appeared to be in the water, and that was corrected based in part on Valero’s photos). Strewn about like playthings, some of the cars were thrown on to their sides, trapping passengers until rescuers could pull them free.

Still, Jones wanted more. He asked Valero if he could safely return to his perch to shoot video, and he did. Valero’s subsequent interview with AP Radio also provided quotes for text and TV, and the video scenes he shot with his iPhone were used in the AP package.

Valero’s signature’s shot of the wreckage in the shape of a giant question mark led the AP coverage and was the most widely used image across online media from morning into the night, displayed prominently by The New York Times, the New York Post, The Boston Globe and The Guardian and other outlets even after news organizations had their own shooters in the Bronx.

And it provided the AP with crucial information before its reporters could get to the scene.

Said East Regional Editor Karen Testa: Caleb’s work “was extraordinary in securing compelling images that not only told the story visually but helped ensure we were accurate in describing the wreckage before we had boots on the ground.”

For his intrepid and determined use of social media, which put the AP ahead on a breaking story of wide interest, Caleb Jones wins this week’s $500 prize.

A simple kindness

How much should a reporter or photographer get personally involved with the people they’re covering? AP staff seek never to become part of a news story, but there’s nothing wrong with a simple human kindness.

A recent example:

A Pakistani girl comforts her brother near her family's makeshift tent in a slum in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Slums, which are built on illegal lands, have neither running water or sewage disposal. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

A Pakistani girl comforts her brother near her family’s makeshift tent in a slum in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Slums, which are built on illegal lands, have neither running water or sewage disposal. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

On Oct. 21, AP Photographer Muhammed Muheisen in Islamabad made this image. The caption said it showed “a Pakistani girl comforting her brother near her family’s makeshift tent” in an Islamabad slum.

Shortly afterward Muheisen received an email from an American woman who was touched by his photo: “… I never really appreciated what I have until seeing that picture. … Is there anyway [sic] to get money, food, clothing to that family … a doll or toy or something that shows them that their life is important and the love that they have for each other is everything?”

At first we checked to see if there was a local charity the woman could contact — the best vehicle to directly help the children. But there was no group that helps this slum. Muheisen then said he would be happy to personally relay the woman’s comments to the children and bring them some small gifts. We had no trouble with that suggestion.

AP staffers have showed humanity in many other such situations. As AP reporters fanned out to cover the devastation of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, they discovered a nursing home for the elderly where 84 residents were close to death from hunger, thirst and neglect. AP wrote a stunning story about conditions there.

The story generated huge reader reaction. It included questions on AP’s Facebook page and Twitter feed about whether reporters in such situations are obligated to just report, or are allowed or expected to provide help personally.

Reporters are human. We often give what help we can in situations like this. Our staff brought the elderly people water — the first the recipients had had since the quake — and came back later with more.

The greatest assistance journalists can render to people in need is to write about their plight and encourage help and compassion. Our story on the elderly Haitians eventually brought a response from a charity group. But our staff can extend some charity themselves, and often do.

Backstory: Confirming information about secret US-Iran talks

AP’s Sunday story revealing that the U.S. and Iran had held secret talks before the announcement of a nuclear deal contained this paragraph:

The AP was tipped to the first U.S.-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. The AP learned of further indications of secret diplomacy in the fall and pressed the White House and other officials further. As the Geneva talks appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the extensive outreach.

Contrary to a number of accounts since Sunday, AP did not sit on the story for several months. We aggressively pursued the story throughout that period, trying everything we could to get it to the wire. In fact, some of the information we were tipped to in March turned out to be inaccurate.

“A tip is not a story,” said AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee. “AP was attempting to confirm, to its standards, what had happened. We published the story when we had the vital details that we needed satisfactorily confirmed.”

To quote from AP’s News Values and Principles:

“The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.”

AP calls for greater White House access in New York Times op-ed

UPDATED: Dec. 11, 2013

Santiago Lyon, AP vice president and director of photography, wrote this opinion piece published in The New York Times: Obama’s Orwellian Image Control.
__

Nov. 21, 2013

The Associated Press today reiterated its call for greater access to President Barack Obama for photographers who cover the White House.

“Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties,” said a letter delivered today to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney that was signed by AP and many other news organizations. “As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government.”

The letter echoed concerns raised by AP since President Obama’s first days in office in 2009.

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon underscored key points in the dispute:

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon

AP Vice President and Director of Photography Santiago Lyon

What is The AP seeking?
The AP and other media organizations are seeking more regular photo access to the President in the Oval Office and elsewhere as he performs official duties or meets with staff. While photographers are granted some access to Oval Office meetings and other activities, it has decreased markedly under the Obama administration when compared to previous presidents. We believe we should have access to a wider selection of presidential events where we know access to be possible.

Don’t we already see photos of these occasions?
A small group of photographers and a videographer, collectively known as the “travel pool,” enjoys some access to the Oval Office and other presidential activities but increasingly the Obama administration labels events as “private” before then releasing official photos shot by White House photographers such as Pete Souza.

These images are posted on the White House Flickr page — http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse — where they are available for free.

This July 1, 2013, screen grab from the Twitter Page of the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, shows a tweet featuring an image of President Barack Obama and his family listening to a tour guide inside Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island on June 30, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa. The White House barred press photographers from this portion of the tour saying it was private, but then released their own photos of from Mandela's cell. (AP Photo/The White House)

This July 1, 2013, screen grab from the Twitter Page of the official White House photographer, Pete Souza, shows a tweet featuring an image of President Barack Obama and his family listening to a tour guide inside Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island on June 30, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa. The White House barred press photographers from this portion of the tour saying it was private, but then released their own photos of from Mandela’s cell. (AP Photo/The White House)

The photos on that page are visual press releases and are carefully vetted by administration employees before distribution. Such images are increasingly offered to the media by the White House in lieu of real journalistic access and we and other media organizations find this unacceptable. Media organizations generally do not reproduce written press releases verbatim, so why should we settle for these official images?

What sort of situations have the media been excluded from?
The media were prevented from documenting the President’s first day on the job – surely an historic occasion. In addition, we have been denied access to legislation being signed as well as notable foreign leaders and other visitors of interest, such as the Pakistani student activist Malala Yousafzai. In fact, since 2010 we have only been granted access to the President alone in the Oval Office on two occasions, once in 2009 and again in 2010. We have never been granted access to the President at work in the Oval Office accompanied by his staff. Previous administration regularly granted such access.

And AP isn’t the only news organization with this complaint?
The AP joined with numerous other news organizations, including all the major television networks, as well as media umbrella organizations such as APME, ASNE and the White House Correspondents’ Association to protest this diminished access in a letter to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. In that letter we also requested a meeting with Mr. Carney to discuss the issue.

Hasn’t the AP used White House photos in the past?
We recognize that certain areas of the White House are off-limits to the media because they are secure or private areas, such as the President’s living quarters. On those occasions where something newsworthy or notable happens in these areas we sometimes distribute the official photos. Each such scenario is considered on a case-by-case basis. To be clear – we are asking to be allowed consistent, independent access into the room when the President signs legislation, greets visitors of note, or otherwise discharges his public duties.

Read a PDF of the letter to Carney.

A look at AP’s work base in Tacloban

Singapore-based photographer Maye-E Wong is among the Associated Press journalists who’ve been documenting the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan since it slammed into the Philippines Nov. 8.

Wong, who just returned home after eight days on the ground, has shared a series of images and videos on her Instagram account that give a look at conditions there.

Image

One image shows AP’s makeshift work station, seen amid much debris, at the airport in Tacloban and another shows the satellite units AP is using to file pictures and stories around the world. Another shows Wong brushing her teeth on the tarmac.

“That’s me brushing my teeth on the Tarmac of the airport in #Tacloban where we made camp (our tents in foreground) with survivors of #Typhoon #Haiyan in the #Philippines,” she writes.

Read more about what it has been like to cover the disaster from Manila-based reporter Jim Gomez.

Covering the monster typhoon

Associated Press journalists covering the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines are now living and working in two locations – the meeting room in a hotel that was largely destroyed and a spot at Tacloban’s seaside airport  enclosed by a large party tent.

Ten days after the devastating storm blew through, Manila-based AP reporter Jim Gomez recounts the scene that he and colleagues first encountered:

An aerial image taken from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

An aerial image taken from a Philippine Air Force helicopter shows the devastation of the first landfall by typhoon Haiyan in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Covering the horrific death and devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, a lively central Philippine city of more than 200,000 people on Leyte island, southeast of Manila, was like reporting in a war zone.

Power, transport, fuel, food, water and telephones were snuffed out by one of the most ferocious storms on record.

In knocking out all forms of communications, Haiyan prevented news of the massive death toll and devastation from rapidly filtering out beyond the island. There was a fleeting mention  by a Manila aviation official of Tacloban’s airport being ruined by storm surges. The government put the overall death toll in the central Philippines at 3 or 4. Media outfits began speculating how the country was spared from serious damage despite the monster storm’s deadly profile.

However, the next morning, when the same aviation official told news organizations  that at least 100 people perished in Tacloban alone, AP staffers sprang into action. Video journalist Kiko Rosario and his  assistant, Vicente Gonzales; photographers Bullit Marquez and Aaron Favila and I rushed to the Villamor Air Base in Manila, where air force C-130 aircraft were taking off to transport the first  disaster-response teams and food packs to the battered city. Favila got to Villamor first, quickly looked for the manifest and listed our names – a crucial action since throngs of foreign and local journalists would converge later at the air base to fight for about a dozen seats allotted to media. All commercial flights were suspended.

After landing at Tacloban’s ruined airport,  Kiko, Bullit and Aaron quickly spread out to capture the first images of the devastation as night approached. They climbed to the top of the airport tower – its glass shattered – and took in flattened and devastated villages as far as their eyes could  see.

The airport parking lot was a muddy wasteland of upturned cars, cargo trolleys, aviation equipment and jagged tin roofs. Walking just a few blocks away, we saw bodies on roadsides, covered by tin roofs, sodden bedsheets and pieces of wood. Stunned survivors huddled together on sidewalks near corpses, covering their noses. They asked for food and water but we had none.

One lady said she was given biscuits by friends but would not eat them because she had no water. Beyond the road, she pointed to a clearing that I thought was a barren farm but turned out to be a crowded coastal village, where her house once stood, until a wall of water surged from the sea the morning the typhoon hit and swept away everything.

We  set up a makeshift office outside a low-slung, damaged building, where a few airport controllers and army troops temporarily operated. The building attracted journalists because it was the only structure in the entire airport with a light bulb on. A diesel generator supplied power. Connecting to the power line, the AP team sent out the first images and stories through laptops hooked to satellite phones.

Dinner was a piece of salty cracker topped with a small slice of sardines, courtesy of fellow journalists from another news outfit. Bed for me was a white plastic chair, in which  I tried to sleep. The stench of bodies stacked in a nearby chapel kept me awake all night.

Without car, fuel and information – the city government had virtually collapsed – it was hard to plan the next day’s  coverage. Photographers hiked  several kilometers to  town and hard-hit villages. Coordinating the movement of AP staff became a challenge without functioning telephones, so staffers were basically on their own, incommunicado, once they left our airport base. Many survivors later found their way through the airport’s broken perimeter fences and wandered near our workplaces, later competing for sleeping spaces.

There was no meal at all on the second day. Some air force personnel handed us a couple of  water bottles and later allowed us to use a hand-operated water pump that was dangerously located in the middle of a heap of sharp tin debris and rocks. We washed ourselves there.

The hardest moments were interviewing the survivors, who were  visibly traumatized. Many had missing loved ones, or they were struggling to care for injured or sick relatives and wanted to escape Tacloban but couldn’t. Most of the survivors I interviewed had not had a meal for days. Many waited in long lines outside the airport, hoping to get a flight out on military relief aircraft.

Once, while reading my notes to my colleague Todd Pitman, who was typing them in his laptop for transmission later to the Manila desk. I got overwhelmed and could not go on when I was describing how a father was embracing his kids and wife during a downpour on the tarmac. Huddled close together, I saw that they were all crying quietly. The wife and kids were to board a C-130 shortly and the father decided to stay home to guard their damaged home.

At another time we were interviewing a woman, who was with her children and other relatives. They had waited with the huge crowd for days but could not get seats in one of the outbound military planes amid the bedlam. She worried for her family and begged us for help, tears streaming down her face.

Trouble with a Philippine death toll

Most people think the trickiest issues journalists face are complicated stories full of anonymous sources. But a story that tied us in knots on Thursday was a fairly basic one where all the information was fully public and on the record.

As of Thursday morning New York time, the death toll in the Philippine typhoon was 2,357, as announced by authorities in the Philippines. At midday Thursday, after nightfall in the Philippines, United Nations Associate Spokesman Farhan Haq announced in a New York briefing that the toll had risen to 4,460 — a significant jump.

Our U.N. staff double-checked the number from the briefing with a U.N. official, who confirmed it. With that, we gave the figure the full treatment — an APNewsAlert on our wires and a “push” that sets off an alerting tone for users of our mobile app.

Soon afterward, AP interactive producer Phil Holm noticed that a U.N. website was using the same figure — 4,460 — for the number of operating evacuation shelters in the Philippines.

It seemed like too much of a coincidence. We checked again with the UN spokesman. He said there had been a mistake.

We withdrew our earlier story and sent a “push” correction to our mobile subscribers.

Within minutes, however, the spokesman called us back to say that no, actually the website was wrong and 4,460 was the real death toll.

What to do? Run out a new APNewsAlert and send yet another “push” to our mobile readers?

We felt we could not subject our readers to any more whiplash based on the numbers coming out of the U.N. We needed confirmation directly from the Philippines. We woke up our staff there — at about 3 a.m. local time — and they began contacting Philippine officials to find out what the facts were.

When our reporters couldn’t get a quick official response, we sent an advisory to our subscribers explaining the situation. We published a similar story for online readers, saying that “Given the confusion, the AP is seeking to confirm the toll directly with Philippine officials.”

Finally, around 7:30 p.m. in New York, our reporters in the Philippines established that the latest official death toll, from Maj. Reynaldo Balido of the country’s civil defense agency, had gone up by only three to 2,360. The numbers issued by the civil defense agency are based on confirmed body counts. We updated our story to show that 2,360 was now the best confirmed number.

This was the first time a typhoon death toll figure issued by the U.N. had raised questions. But in the future, we will be looking to official spokesmen in the Philippines for this information. The most important thing for us is accuracy.

The takeaway: As we’ve learned many times, officials can be wrong. Even when we double-check. It’s essential to clearly convey who our sources are and to correct errors as soon as we can determine the right information.

New journalism ethics?

Is journalism moving toward a new set of ethics? A new book of essays from the Poynter journalism institute is drawing a lot of attention in journalism circles. The book was edited by Poynter ethics specialist Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. It argues that the fundamentals of journalistic ethics are moving from truth, independence and “do no harm” to a new hierarchy: truth, transparency and interaction with the community.

The book holds that journalism doesn’t necessarily have to be independent of any political or social point of view. It can equally well come from some viewpoint, so long as the journalist is transparent about what his perspective is. The book’s concept of community interaction incorporates the idea of “do no harm” but goes well beyond that — to a real synergy between journalists and the people who consume news.

The book and other new views of journalism were the subject of a forum last night at the Ford Foundation in New York (tweeted in detail by those attending, under the hashtag #newethics).

Carrying the flag for AP were Senior Managing Editor Mike Oreskes and myself.

Mike said transparency is an important value, but is not a substitute for independence. Disclosing connections, conflicts or partisan affiliations is important for journalists who have them. But in a world inundated with information of various levels of credibility, he said, it’s more important than ever that at least some of our journalism be thoroughly independent

There was a lot of talk about truth and how it is harder to find in the cacophony of different voices on the Internet. Mike urged that we separate the words “fact” and “truth.” Much of the day-to-day work of journalism is establishing and verifying fact.

Clay Shirky, a New York University professor and author of an essay in the book, argued that the easier a fact is to establish the less important it is. Mike dissented, citing “the president is dead.” It is either fact or not. And surely important.

But Mike agreed that larger truth involves complicated subjects that can require a great deal of knowledge and expertise. He mentioned climate change. There are weather stations around the world that have recorded increases in temperature over the years, he said. Those measurements are facts. But it is the judgment of scientists that this warming is a global trend probably caused by carbon use. Journalists, Mike said, need to be clear about the distinction.

As AP standards editor, I said the AP is already doing many of the things the book recommends. We’re transparent about where we’re coming from: we strive to present an objective view of world rather than serve a specific point of view. We publicly correct our mistakes. We work to be open to the communities we serve, especially through the hundreds of AP staffers who interact with AP’s readers and viewers on social networks.

Many aspects of journalistic ethics will continue to evolve. But fairness and accuracy are bedrock principles we expect to stand on for a long time.

Reporter reveals disparity in state salaries

As the only news agency with reporters in all 50 statehouses across the country, The Associated Press is well-positioned to break important state government news. A recent report by an enterprising journalist in Minnesota revealed that 145 local officials earn more than the governor. A staff memo from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explains:

BRIAN BAKST

Brian Bakst

The disparity jumped out at St. Paul newsman Brian Bakst. While reporting a routine story, he noticed the salary disclosure on a city/county website. A local official, according to the website, made substantially more in salary than the state’s governor.

That little nugget led him to research what had happened across the state since the legislature relaxed what had been a rigid salary cap for local officials. The cap had tied their salaries – and their raises – to the governor’s. He picked away at the story over the next six weeks as time allowed. Eventually, he had compiled salary data from 126 Minnesota cities and counties to report his overall findings: the salaries of city and county top employees had risen sharply since the law was relaxed. In some cases, the pay for a single position had shot up more than $40,000 in about eight years. This reporting emerged just as the state was considering pay raises for its top employees.

Bakst found that at least 145 city or county officials making more than the governor’s $120,303. And as he smartly pointed out in the story, that’s just their base pay. That doesn’t include car allowances and other benefits that add to the compensation package. In addition, he noted that the number of highly compensated workers might be higher than 145 because localities only have to list their top three earners.

After writing the story, Bakst emailed his spreadsheet with localization tips to members around the state as part of the package’s promotion three days ahead of publication. “This looks awesome … thanks,” wrote the editor of the Rochester Post-Bulletin, who used his own localized version on A1 and Bakst’s statewide story inside.

Bakst also earned front-page play across the state and those that didn’t run his story, ran their localized version using data Bakst had sent them – and credited the AP. The story ranked among the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s most-read.

For smart, enterprising reporting, and for going the extra mile to help members make the story their own, Brian Bakst wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.