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.

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.

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.

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.

How a reporter discovered lobbyists get state pensions

A tip received in the New York Statehouse, shared with other AP statehouse reporters across the country, leads to the news that public pensions are available to hundreds of lobbyists in at least 20 states. A staff memo from Managing Editor Kristin Gazlay gives the backstory:

It was a tip that walked in the door. A former Albany journalist who stopped by AP’s New York Capitol bureau to say hello offered a jaw-dropping piece of information: He had just landed a job lobbying for the New York Conference of Mayors and was surprised to learn that the non-governmental job came with a special government perk — a full state pension.

So Capitol reporter Michael Gormley started to dig. At first, officials who oversee the New York state pension system told him they were unaware that lobbyists for eight private associations representing counties, cities and school boards were entitled to state pensions. So Gormley filed a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Law and found that the state indeed offers lobbyists that benefit, on the premise that they serve governments and the public.

Stephen Acquario

In this May 9, 2013 file photo, Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, attends a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Acquario is among hundreds of lobbyists in at least 20 states who get public pensions because they represent associations of counties, cities and school boards, an Associated Press review found. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Gormley also was able to obtain the names of people falling into that category, along with some financial data. Among the people pinpointed were the executive director and general counsel of the New York State Association of Counties, who already makes $204,000 annually and gets a company car, and New York Conference of Mayors Executive Director Peter Baynes, who makes $196,000 a year and also gets a company vehicle. Both will retire with full state pensions.

But Gormley didn’t stop there. With the assistance of East Desk editor Amy Fiscus, he enlisted his statehouse colleagues across the country to determine that a similar pension benefit is offered to hundreds of such lobbyists in at least 20 states. Several states are questioning whether the practice is proper, and two states — New Jersey and Illinois — have legislation pending to end it.

For thinking beyond his state’s borders to produce a smart piece of accountability journalism that once again underscores the value of AP’s statehouse reporting, Gormley wins this week’s Best of the States $300 prize.

AP statement on DOJ review of media guidelines

“The Associated Press is gratified that the Department of Justice took our concerns seriously. The description of the new guidelines released today indicates they will result in meaningful, additional protection for journalists. We’ll obviously be reviewing them more closely when the actual language of the guidelines is released, but we are heartened by this step.”

Erin Madigan White
Senior Media Relations Manager
The Associated Press

Read the AP news story.

AP CEO lays out 5 measures to ensure press freedom

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt addresses National Press Club in Washington, June 19, 2013.

AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt addresses National Press Club in Washington, June 19, 2013.

In the wake of a secret seizure of AP journalists’ phone records by the U.S. Department of Justice last month, Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the overbroad action is already having a chilling effect on journalism.

In a speech today at the National Press Club in Washington, Pruitt, a First Amendment lawyer by training, outlined five steps that are “imperative to give meaning to the powers spelled out” in the Constitution to safeguard press freedom:  

  • “First: We want the Department of Justice to recognize the right of the press to advance notice and a chance to be heard before its records are taken by the government. This would have given AP the chance to point out the many failings of the subpoena. We believe notice was required under existing regulations; if the DOJ sees it differently, then regulations must be strengthened to remove any doubt.
  • Second: We want judicial oversight. We need to ensure that proper checks and balances are maintained. In the AP phone records case, the Justice Department determined, on its own, that advance notice could be skipped, with no checks from any other branch of government. Denying constitutional rights by executive fiat is not how this government should work.
  • Third: We want the DOJ guidelines updated to bring them into the 21st century. The guidelines were created before the Internet era. They didn’t foresee emails or text.  The guidelines need to ensure that the protections afforded journalists from the forced disclosure of information encompass all forms of communication.
  • Fourth: We want a federal shield law enacted with teeth in it that will protect reporters from such unilateral and secret government action.
  • Fifth: We want the Department to formally institutionalize what Attorney General Holder has said: that the Justice Department will not prosecute any reporter for doing his or her job.  The Department should not criminalize — or threaten to criminalize — journalists for doing their jobs, such as by calling them co-conspirators under the Espionage Act, as they did Fox reporter James Rosen.  This needs to be part of an established directive, not only limited to the current administration.”

Read the full text of Pruitt’s prepared remarks.

Read the AP news story.