Is it news or a spoiler?

Jon Hamm arrives at The Black And Red Ball In Celebration Of The Final Seven Episodes Of "Mad Men" on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Jon Hamm arrives at The Black And Red Ball In Celebration Of The Final Seven Episodes Of “Mad Men” on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

A few weeks ago, when the Grammy Awards aired, we sent alerts on the top winners to our subscribers around the world, users of the AP mobile app and our social media followers. This brought us a fierce message from one app user, who said the show hadn’t yet been broadcast on the U.S. West Coast and we’d spoiled the excitement for him.

As a global news organization, there’s no way we can hold up breaking news from events millions of people are watching, like the Grammys, just because not everyone has seen it yet.

But on occasion, we do make efforts to avoid spoilers. Take coverage of TV series like a “Mad Men” finale or the outcome of a competition show such as “The Voice,” whose air times vary depending on time zones. We keep results out of the headlines and trust viewers won’t go further if they don’t want to know the outcome.

There’s also the increasingly common situation where a whole season of shows, like “House of Cards,” is released at once.

Some people will binge-watch them all immediately. But most will view a few at a time, and it’s reasonable not to be in their faces with plot twists they may not want to know about. In such cases, too, we avoid putting any potential spoiler in headlines, and we warn readers within our stories before we talk about a surprise that happens in a later episode.

We also avoid spoiler material in reviews. When we review a play that’s a detective story, we don’t reveal whodunit.

It comes down to trying to tread a line between covering breaking entertainment news as it happens and respecting the suspense many enjoy around the content of entertainment programs themselves.

Setting the standards for journalists’ safety

The Associated Press has joined 25 other news organizations and journalism groups in endorsing an unprecedented set of safety standards designed to protect freelance reporters on dangerous assignments.

A document spelling out the safety guidelines, titled “A Call for Global Safety Principles and Practices,” will be discussed this evening by leaders of the organizations during a gathering at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York sponsored by the school’s Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.

Photographer Visar Kryeziu, left, covers riots in Kosovo's capital Pristina, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. Thousands of protesters clashed with police for hours in the city's streets, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. More than 80 people, including over 50 policemen, were injured, while 160 were detained. (Photo by Petrit Rrahmani)

AP photographer Visar Kryeziu, left, covers riots in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (Photo by Petrit Rrahmani)

Among the seven international safety standards for reporters working in perilous regions, the document says, “We encourage all journalists to complete a recognized news industry first aid course, to carry a suitable first-aid kit and continue their training to stay up-to-date on standards of care and safety both physical and psychological. Before undertaking an assignment in such zones, journalists should seek adequate medical insurance covering them in a conflict zone or area of infectious disease.”

In addition, the document says, “Journalists in active war zones should be aware of the need and importance of having protective ballistic clothing, including armored jackets and helmets.”

Also included in the seven standards for news organizations making assignments in hot zones are these:

  • “News organizations and editors should endeavor to treat journalists and freelancers they use on a regular basis in a similar manner to the way they treat staffers when it comes to issues of safety training, first aid and other safety equipment, and responsibility in the event of injury or kidnap.”
  • “News organizations should not make an assignment with a freelancer in a conflict zone or dangerous environment unless the news organization is prepared to take the same responsibility for the freelancer’s well-being in the event of kidnap or injury as it would a staffer. News organizations have a moral responsibility to support journalists to whom they give assignments in dangerous areas, as long as the freelancer complies with the rules and instructions of the news organization.”

“Over the last two years, killings, imprisonments and abductions of journalists have reached historic highs,” the document notes. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 61 were killed in 2014 and 73 in 2013.

“As journalists from AP face ever-increasing risk to gather the news that the world needs, it is vitally necessary to put in place best practices to keep them as safe as possible to do their jobs,” said AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll. “We have embraced the values represented by these practices, and we believe they will help set the standard for the industry to protect journalists and ultimately to save lives.’’

AP Senior Managing Editor for International News John Daniszewski (AP Photo).

AP Senior Managing Editor for International News John Daniszewski (AP Photo).

A preamble to the new guidelines was a meeting of foreign news editors last September in Chicago hosted by John Daniszewski, AP’s senior managing editor for international news. “Foreign editors were asking what we could do to strengthen the commitment to safety, especially for freelancers and local journalists, after the horrific killings of journalists in 2014,” Daniszewski said, “and we were concerned that some of the newer organizations did not have organized standards and rules for protecting the journalists that they sent on assignment.”

Reuters investigative reporter David Rohde, who attended the Chicago meeting, shared the results with his colleagues. Reuters Editor in Chief Stephen J. Adler had already launched similar discussions. Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s journalism school, and Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center, also had concerns, which led to other meetings.

As a result, the resulting guidelines were drafted by an international group of freelancers, foreign correspondents, press advocates and news executives.

Daniszewski added: “We are proud of the AP’s deep and ongoing commitment to safety and security of journalists and hope the values represented in these best practices can serve as a guide for all news organizations.”

Besides AP and Reuters, the 26 signatories include the British Broadcasting Corp., Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, the Miami Herald, GlobalPost, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Overseas Press Club, USA Today and Reporters Without Borders.

A video of this evening’s discussion is expected to be available within a few days on the Dart Center’s website.

Automated earnings stories multiply

The Associated Press, working with Automated Insights and Zacks Investment Research, is now automatically generating more than 3,000 stories about U.S. corporate earnings each quarter, a tenfold increase over what AP reporters and editors created previously. Here, Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson, who has been overseeing the rollout of this process in the newsroom, gives an update on AP’s automation efforts that began last summer.

Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson (AP Photo).

Assistant Business Editor Philana Patterson (AP Photo).

What changes has AP made to the automation process?
Since automation began in July, AP has added a number of enhancements to the stories. Descriptions of businesses have been added and the stories now include forward-looking guidance provided by the companies. We are running smoothly, and always looking for opportunities, along with Zacks and AI, to improve what we are producing with automation.

What has the reaction been?
There has been a great deal of interest about how automation works from both members and readers, and overall the reaction has been incredibly positive. AP members are getting more stories about companies in their markets than ever before. We want this process to be as transparent as possible so we have added an explanation of how earnings automation works. It can be found on Automated Insights’ landing page: http://www.automatedinsights.com/ap/.

That link, and one from Zacks, is provided in the tagline of each story. We’ve also encouraged our members and subscribers to make these links available to readers when using the stories, especially online.

Internally, the reaction has been positive from staff, largely because automation has freed up valuable reporting time and reduced the amount of data-processing type work they had been doing.

How does AP ensure quality control?
Quality control was critical from the outset. We worked with Zacks and AI to make sure that every step of the process would produce stories without errors. When we launched last summer, a fair number of errors were discovered in the testing process. We then worked with Zacks and AI on solutions to ensure they wouldn’t happen again. Today, mistakes are rare. Pretty much the only time we will now have an error is if a number is entered incorrectly into the system at the beginning. Once you set up automation, and go through a rigorous testing process, you reduce the prospect of errors. In fact, we have far fewer errors than we did when we were writing earnings reports manually.

Has automation allowed staff to focus more on reporting?
Absolutely. Like all media, we are working with limited resources and it’s critical that we maximize the time reporters have to do journalism and break news. We estimate the automation of earnings reports has freed up about 20 percent of the time that we had spread throughout the staff in producing earnings reports each quarter. It is enabling us to reconfigure our business breaking news operations to be more in sync with social media and user-generated content, and focus more reporters on higher-end enterprise stories that break news that no one else has. Our goals are to break more business news than our competitors, aim higher on investigative and explanatory journalism and focus more of our work on the general consumer. We’ve got some big projects in the works. Automation is helping us free up resources to do all of these things.

What’s next?
This quarter, we are testing the automation of earnings from Canadian and European companies. We expect to add further enhancements and more companies in future quarters. My colleagues in the sports department are also exploring small-audience sports for automation in order to free staff to report news that fans and consumers do not get on the field or a broadcast. We expect to be talking about automation through the year, including at this year’s SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.

Why AP didn’t run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo,  Stephane Charbonnier also known as Charb ,  the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo, Stephane Charbonnier, the editor of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays a front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. AP moved this image on the wire this week. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

The attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris raised many questions about how news agencies handle controversial images. We answered some of them Wednesday in response to calls from reporters and bloggers. Below is a summary of the questions and our replies.

Did AP run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons mocking Islam?
AP tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation. We did not run the “Danish cartoons” mocking Muhammad in 2005, or the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the same type. While we run many photos that are politically or socially provocative, there are areas verging on hate speech and actions where we feel it is right to be cautious.

This policy is consistent with our approach to sound bites and text reporting, where we avoid racist, religious and sexual slurs.

But don’t such images and speech sometimes make news?
They do, and we may need to describe hate speech and images when they lead to attacks or arrests. But we limit ourselves to brief descriptions, often without the images or slurs themselves. Routinely publicizing hate speech and images can lead to a “can-you-top-this” situation where provocateurs produce increasingly offensive material for news media to lap up and redistribute, accusing them of censorship when they fail to bite. We don’t want to fan such flames.

We also believe we should not rotely transmit propaganda images designed to sow fear and terror. These could include images that display hostages in demeaning situations, prisoners being abused or the bloodied bodies of vanquished enemies. Sometimes such images, or crops of them, may be essential to convey an event.

On occasion we’ve run a few seconds of video of a hostage. We also ran the well-known photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But any such material requires discussion by our editors and a judgment that it is truly newsworthy. We never transmit such material simply because “it’s out there” and others are carrying them.

What about images mocking Christianity or Judaism?
We try to be even-handed. We have declined to run cartoons demeaning Jews and the Holocaust, although we have referred to them in stories when the reaction to them has made news. In the urgency of a 24-hour newsroom, some images get through despite our best efforts; we removed from our service some photos we put out showing a crowd in Afghanistan burning a cross to disparage Christianity.

These are AP news policies for the pictures we distribute in our news reports. In addition, the company has a separate commercial photo business called AP Images that, among other things, has an archive of 22 million photos, including AP pictures that predate our current editorial standards and pictures from many other photo partners. Sometimes photos that don’t meet our current editorial standards are found among those millions of pictures.

Thus, on Wednesday we removed from AP Images some Charlie Hebdo cartoons that had come from a non-AP source. We also became aware that a 25-year-old image of the controversial “Piss Christ” photo was among the photos there, and removed it. Of course, every removal is a judgment call, and we took some flak over the decision on “Piss Christ.”

We learned long ago that some of our news decisions will be controversial. While there’s certainly a slippery slope that leads to avoiding any image that could cause offense, there’s an equally slippery one that leads to suspending our editorial judgment and allowing our news service to be hijacked by whatever offensive image is circulating on a given day. Our best approach is to try to be as thoughtful and even-handed as we can, knowing we’ll sometimes be criticized for a decision not everyone likes.

But what about the censorship issue? Who is the AP to decide what images the world will see?
This question was more valid a couple of decades ago, when a very small number of international news agencies “owned the wires” that distributed photos around the world. If the agencies chose not to run a photo, few were likely ever to see it. Even at that time, we felt a responsibility to use our judgment and distribute only those photos we were comfortable with.

But now the censorship argument has largely evaporated. The most hotly disputed images of recent years can usually be found easily via search engines and social networks by anyone who wants to see them. In the Internet era, we are free to edit our news service in line with our own professional consciences and the valid needs of our readers and subscribers without people being able to claim we’re making some decision for the entire world. We have an editorial policy, and that’s what you get from AP.

Advisory on Ebola coverage

In an advisory to editors at member and customer news organizations, The Associated Press outlined the careful steps it is taking in covering the Ebola story.

EDITORS:

We’re increasingly hearing reports of “suspected” cases of Ebola in the United States and Europe. The AP has exercised caution in reporting these cases and will continue to do so.

Most of these suspected cases turn out to be negative. Our bureaus monitor them, but we have not been moving stories or imagery simply because a doctor suspects Ebola and routine precautions are taken while the patient is tested. To report such a case, we look for a solid source saying Ebola is suspected and some sense the case has caused serious disruption or reaction. Are buildings being closed and substantial numbers of people being evacuated or isolated? Is a plane being diverted? Is the suspected case closely related to another, confirmed Ebola case?

When we do report a suspected case, we will seek to keep our stories brief and in perspective.

The AP

Vetting and coping with violent imagery

From his base in London, International Social Media Editor Fergus Bell leads The Associated Press’ efforts to source and verify user-generated content so that the AP can publish that content across formats.

International Social Media and UGC Editor Fergus Bell (AP Photo).

International Social Media and UGC Editor Fergus Bell (AP Photo).

In a recent Q&A with the Global Editors Network, Bell discussed how AP journalists handle the daily monitoring of violent and graphic imagery when searching for and vetting UGC from conflict areas such as Iraq and Syria.

Bell, who is spearheading an industrywide working group around ethics and user-generated content, underscored the many factors AP weighs when deciding whether to make graphic imagery available to members and customers around the world.

“We never use more than we absolutely need to in order to illustrate the story and we also consider the implications for relatives, and whether we are giving a platform to the people creating this. All of those things are taken into consideration,” he said.

For example, AP last week distributed a video that had been posted online by militants that purportedly shows the Islamic State group fighting in Northern Syria near the town of Kobani on the Turkish border. Because of the proximity to Islamic State group forces we know that the footage itself must have been filmed by militants, Bell said. As is AP’s practice, the source of the video is clearly labeled and AP journalists with expertise in the region were involved in confirming its authenticity.

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.

Visit AP at SXSW Interactive

The Associated Press is joining thousands of digital and creative professionals from around the world converging at the 2014 SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, which runs March 7 through 11.  Here’s a rundown of where you’ll find AP:

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

David Guttenfelder and Eric Carvin

Saturday, March 8

Sunday, March 9

  • AP Social Media Editor Eric Carvin (@EricCarvin) and Mandy Jenkins, managing editor for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, will discuss the responsibilities news organizations have to citizen journalists. The session will cover topics such as credits and permissions for user-generated content and working with amateurs who may find themselves reporting in dangerous circumstances. Follow along on Twitter with hashtag: #UGCEthics.  12:30-1:30 p.m., Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD.
  • And AP is sponsoring the Film + Interactive Fusion Party, which brings together filmmakers, designers, social media experts, producers and more. Featuring a DJ, games, photo booth and more, the party is open to all Interactive, Film, Gold and Platinum badge holders. 7-10 p.m., Palm Door, 508 East 6th St.

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.

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.