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.

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.”

Visit AP at ONA in Atlanta

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AP Standards Editor Tom Kent helps lead a break out session for an ethics panel at ONA. (Photo by Fergus Bell)

The Associated Press is joining digital journalists from around the country at the 2013 Online News Association conference in Atlanta, which runs today through Oct. 19. Here’s a rundown of where you’ll find AP:

October 17:

  • Standards Editor Tom Kent (@tjrkent) and International Social Media Editor Fergus Bell (@fergb) will participate in a discussion about an online code of ethics from 2:45 p.m. – 3:45 p.m. ET.

October 18:

  • Minkoff teams up with ProPublica to give a workshop from 10:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. ET on how reporters can find hidden structured data online to both drive and supplement stories, using non-programmatic tools.
  • Stop by the AP table from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. ET for a sneak peak at new AP Stylebook (@APStylebook) products that are coming soon.

And looking ahead to 2014, you can also stop by the AP table to learn more AP’s Election services.

AP’s everyday work of seeking access to government information, with names attached

The rules by which journalists engage with government officials can sound arcane. “Background briefing.” “Off the record.” “Not for direct attribution.” But arguments over applying these rules are part of a struggle that really matters. Most democratic countries explicitly promise the right to speak and publish freely. But often only implied is the right to gather the information you want to speak about or publish, or to have someone gather it on the public’s behalf.

Which is why, at the AP, we see it as our everyday job to argue for access to the workings of government and the information government holds. Government officials increasingly offer to provide official information only on the condition that they are not identified as the source. These so-called background or off-the-record briefings are popular in government because officials can present information without taking responsibility for it. Without attribution it is hard for citizens to know whom in government to hold accountable. We believe anonymity should be reserved for sources who want to share important information with the public but could lose their job, or even their life, if they were identified. That clearly isn’t a risk for most government officials when they insist briefings be “on background.”

So AP journalists are instructed to ask that briefings be on the record. Sometimes they succeed. When government officials refuse, our journalists are instructed to use their best judgment about whether the information is important enough, and credible enough, to distribute despite the restrictions.

The struggle for access is not only about words. The White House often bars photojournalists from events with the president. The only images of those events are thus by government-employed photographers. You get to see only what the White House wants you to see. In those cases the AP generally declines to distribute the government handout photos, unless the restrictions were unavoidable.

The importance we place on being allowed to gather the news without interference was given a great deal of attention after it was revealed last month that the Justice Department had thrown an investigative drift net over the phone records of some of our reporters and editors to identify their sources. We protested, vehemently. As AP CEO Gary Pruitt said, this was an unprecedented intrusion and chilled our ability to gather news. The case was unusual, but our position flowed from the work we do each day to assure access to the workings of governments all around the world.