8 ways the Obama administration is blocking information

The fight for access to public information has never been harder, Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee said recently at a joint meeting of the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the Associated Press Photo Managers. The problem extends across the entire federal government and is now trickling down to state and local governments.

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee (AP Photo).

Here is Buzbee’s list of eight ways the Obama administration is making it hard for journalists to find information and cover the news:

1) As the United States ramps up its fight against Islamic militants, the public can’t see any of it. News organizations can’t shoot photos or video of bombers as they take off — there are no embeds. In fact, the administration won’t even say what country the S. bombers fly from.

2) The White House once fought to get cameramen, photographers and reporters into meetings the president had with foreign leaders overseas. That access has become much rarer. Think about the message that sends other nations about how the world’s leading democracy deals with the media:  Keep them out and let them use handout photos.

3) Guantanamo: The big important 9/11 trial is finally coming up. But we aren’t allowed to see most court filings in real time — even of nonclassified material. So at hearings, we can’t follow what’s happening. We don’t know what prosecutors are asking for, or what defense attorneys are arguing.

4) Information about Guantanamo that was routinely released under President George W. Bush is now kept secret. The military won’t release the number of prisoners on hunger strike or the number of assaults on guards. Photo and video coverage is virtually nonexistent.

5) Day-to-day intimidation of sources is chilling. AP’s transportation reporter’s sources say that if they are caught talking to her, they will be fired. Even if they just give her facts, about safety, for example. Government press officials say their orders are to squelch anything controversial or that makes the administration look bad.

6) One of the media — and public’s — most important legal tools, the Freedom of Information Act, is under siege. Requests for information under FOIA have become slow and expensive. Many federal agencies simply don’t respond at all in a timely manner, forcing news organizations to sue each time to force action.

7) The administration uses FOIAs as a tip service to uncover what news organizations are pursuing. Requests are now routinely forwarded to political appointees. At the agency that oversees the new health care law, for example, political appointees now handle the FOIA requests.

8) The administration is trying to control the information that state and local officials can give out. The FBI has directed local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology the police departments use to sweep up cellphone data. In some cases, federal officials have formally intervened in state open records cases, arguing for secrecy.

AP announces new political reporting lineup

U.S. Political Editor David Scott announced the AP’s new political reporting lineup in a memo to staff today:

All,

Please join me in welcoming Steve Peoples as he joins the Washington bureau this month as a political reporter focused on the Republican Party and its candidates for president in 2016.

Steve Peoples (AP Photo).

Steve Peoples (AP Photo).

“Joining” might seem like the wrong verb, since Steve has been a part of the AP’s political team — covering this crucial beat — for some time. From his base in Boston, and his second home at the many Marriotts of New Hampshire, Peoples turned his role as our northeast political reporter into a job whose scope reached far beyond New England.

For months during the last presidential campaign, Peoples was a fixture in the living rooms and coffee shops where the New Hampshire primary is won and lost. He sat in diners with Jon Huntsman’s family and rode mountain bikes with Ron Paul. He turned those intimate moments into a depth of sourcing that allowed him to excel as our reporter on the Mitt Romney campaign.

In recent months, even as he continued covering GOP contenders, Steve took it upon himself to keep the AP’s political reporting team organized and on point, leading story discussion meetings and organizing coverage of key moments of the off-campaign year. His assistance has been invaluable to me as I get up to speed in Washington.

With this move, AP will now field quite the political reporting lineup — a team that’s ready for the upcoming presidential election, which as we all know is well underway.

Ken Thomas and Julie Pace (AP Photo).

Ken Thomas and Julie Pace (AP Photo).

Leading off are Steve and Ken Thomas, our reporter on the national Democratic Party and, therefore, Hillary Rodham Clinton. As the campaign gains momentum, they’ll increasingly be joined by Julie Pace and members of the White House team. There is no better place for AP’s White House Correspondent to prepare to lead AP’s coverage of the next president than out in the country as voters make the choice of who will next sit in the Oval Office.

Who might they be writing about this time next year? Still to be determined, although we have some clues. We know for certain the campaign will start in Iowa, where Tom Beaumont will tell the story, joined as the campaign moves along by political reporters Nick Riccardi in Denver, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Mike Mishak in Miami and Jill Colvin in New Jersey. And they’re backed with Washington’s Phil Elliott on money and media, Jesse Holland on race, ethnicity and voters, and Chuck Babington on the intersection of politics, the campaign and Congress. All guided by the intel provided by polling chief Jenn Agiesta, and assisted by Donna Cassata, Dave Espo and all the member of our team on the Hill.

And then there are all the beat reporters in Washington whose expertise on policy so often makes the AP’s political report something truly distinct. And all the political reporters AP has in every statehouse, which gives AP — and therefore its members and customers — a reach that no one can match.

And that’s just the text team. We’re already working on exciting ideas on how we’ll carry out our political story telling in video for 2016. For now, I’m thrilled to welcome Steve to Washington and so excited to be working with him, this team and our staff in U.S. news to tell the story of another chapter in the grand American experiment.

From Washington,

David

Learn more about AP’s national politics team and follow @AP_Politics on Twitter.

How one Cuba scoop led to another

In a memo to staff, Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes hails the AP reporting team from around the world who worked together to break an important story about the U.S. government’s secret activities in Cuba:

It could be the makings of a James Bond movie: secure phones and encrypted emails used by AP reporters trying to penetrate a government program whose operatives were themselves using secret codes and trade craft. “I have a headache” really meant “They are watching me.” And “Your sister is ill” translated to “Time to get out.”

But it’s not fiction. It’s all part of this week’s Beat of the Week _ an accountability story furthering AP’s exclusive reporting on U.S. government efforts to stir political change in Cuba.

When does one scoop lead to another? When you’re the investigative team that this spring exposed a U.S. government program that created a secret “Cuban Twitter” text messaging service to encourage unrest on the communist island.

Cuba Secret Infiltration

In this July 11, 2014, photo, Cuban students exit Marta Abreu Central University in Santa Clara, Cuba. Beginning as early as October 2009, a project overseen by the U.S. Agency for International Development sent Venezuelan, Costa Rican and Peruvian nationals to Cuba to cultivate a new generation of political activists. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)

Several weeks after that explosive piece hit the wire, reporter Desmond Butler‘s source gave him a new batch of documents. Tucked inside were details about security protocols with the secret codes and details of a story about an Obama administration program that secretly dispatched young Latin Americans to Cuba using the cover of health and civic programs to provoke political change.

The participants worked undercover, often posing as tourists, and traveled around the island scouting for people they could turn into political activists. But the clandestine operation _ which the AP found was continued even after the arrest of a U.S. contractor for smuggling technology into Cuba _ put those young operatives in danger.

Months in the making under the purview of international investigations editor Trish Wilson, the story reunited the original Cuban Twitter reporting team of Butler, the AP’s chief correspondent in Turkey; Washington investigative reporter Jack Gillum; Mexico-based Alberto Arce; and Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi in Havana. Andean bureau chief Frank Bajak chased Peruvians involved in the project, and Hannah Dreier reported from Venezuela.

Technology played a key role in the reporting efforts: Gillum dumped the source documents into AP’s internal document repository so everyone could pore over them. He and Butler set up a [mechanism], so that reporters could see one another’s notes and contributions _ including the travelers’ contact data and interview transcriptions. Gillum also obtained key USAID emails warning contractors from travel to Cuba.

Arce helped translate the source documents, many of which were in Spanish, and interviewed four Costa Ricans who took part in the program, including Fernando Murillo, who ran an HIV prevention workshop in Cuba.

In Cuba, Rodriguez and Orsi doggedly hunted down the Cuban participants, and Rodriguez persuaded them to speak to AP on camera, no small feat given the backlash they could have faced.

Dreier, like everyone else who joined the project, had to learn to use [a secure phone]. She also set up an account to receive encrypted email because communications in Venezuela, like Cuba, are not considered secure. Dreier found four of the Venezuelan travelers, and got the money quote from a woman who acknowledged they were trying to “stir rebellion.”

Orsi reviewed the Spanish documents to ensure all translations were accurate, working meticulously to check every detail and finding last-minute changes made just hours before the story was published.

Video got involved early on. First came the interviews with the young Cubans,  who said they did not know they were targets of the program.

Desmond Butler, AP's chief correspondent in Turkey, appears on Fox News to discuss the AP investigation into another secret U.S. government program in Cuba.

Desmond Butler, AP’s chief correspondent in Turkey, appears on Fox News to discuss the AP investigation into another secret U.S. government program in Cuba.

Then London-based correspondent Raphael Satter tracked down the main organizer of the young Venezuelans recruited to go to Cuba, living now in a small house in Dublin, Ireland. Satter, along with Belfast-based cameraman John Morrisey, tried repeatedly to contact the woman, but she wouldn’t talk and even hid in her bedroom when they came knocking on her door. Their doggedness paid off after several hours when she did come out. She still refused to talk, but Morrisey got a compelling piece of video as the woman ran back into the house, slamming the door behind her.

As the story came together, Washington video supervisor David Bruns donned many hats _ voicing and editing the video piece, as well as creating graphics. A gallery of photos by Franklin Reyes, Esteban Felix and James L. Berenthal also illustrated the story.

The story played widely in newspapers worldwide and on the Internet, showing up on front pages in Mexico and Miami. Several team members appeared on NPR, Fox News and Telemundo, among other media outlets.

For their multinational effort that broke news and kept the AP out front on American secret activities in Cuba, Butler, Gillum, Arce, Rodriguez, Bajak, Dreier, Orsi and Bruns win this week’s $500 prize.

How AP tapped its global resources to chronicle passengers’ final hours

When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 went down, major news organizations across the world rushed out profiles of the victims. In a memo to staff, Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes explores why one AP story resonated around the world:

Amid all of these who-were-they stories, how did Kristen Gelineau‘s narrative strike so deep, touching so many hearts, prompting so many reader tears and accolades? A typical tweet urged, “EVERYONE needs to read this!”

But why, exactly?

The answer may serve as guidance for any number of future AP narrative-behind-the-news pieces and explains why Gelineau’s story is the Beat of the Week.

Some 298 people perished when Flight 17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down as it passed through the airspace of strife-torn Ukraine.

Gelineau, AP’s Sydney-based bureau chief for Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, quickly went to work on “The Final Hours.” Its title reflected an organizing principle from the start: This would be a story showing how selected passengers happened to be on the doomed flight, how they’d spent the time before it took off. It would be a narrative, offering a glimpse of real lives, of scenes and characters, not just locations, names and occupations.

In this undated photo released by the Calehr family, Samira Calehr, left, poses with her son Shaka Panduwinata. Shaka Panduwinata and his brother Miguel Panduwinata, were killed aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/The Calehr family)

In this undated photo released by the Calehr family, Samira Calehr, left, poses with her son Shaka Panduwinata. Shaka Panduwinata and his brother Miguel Panduwinata, were killed aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/The Calehr family)

“We were looking for quality, not quantity,” said Mary Rajkumar, assistant international editor, referring to notes she and Gelineau sent to international regional editors and then individual reporters, requesting help.

One note said: “The quality of the tick-tock and whether we can pull it off will depend hugely on the contributions we get, especially on the details. We’re looking for the little things _ what they did that day, what their usual routine was, what they ate, their last conversation, the last person they saw, what they were like, etc.”

Gelineau requested further specifics, down to the time stamp on a last communication.

“Everyone really went the extra mile to get these details: putting in extra calls and having to ask grieving loved ones to look at emails from their dead relatives,” Gelineau said.

Supplementing her reporting were Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; Jim Gomez in Pagbilao, Philippines; Firdia Lisnawati in Bali, Indonesia; Mike Corder in The Hauge, Netherlands, and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, who jumped in to help while on maternity leave. Lisnawati, Gomez and Gary Chuah shot photos, which ran along with images contributed by families. Video was by Jakarta’s Fadlan Syam and Berlin’s DorotheeThiesing.

So it was that readers learned of Rob Ayley, a New Zealander who’d coped with Asperger’s syndrome from youth but who’d become a father and husband and successful dog breeder who was returning from a business trip touring European kennels; and of Willem Grootscholten, who happily boarded the flight to begin a new life after meeting Christine, a single mother in Bali whose children had come to call him “Daddy”; and of Irene Gunawan, the 53-year-old sparkplug of her Philippine family, who was headed for a reunion in a suburban Manila neighborhood called “Heaven.”

And there were others.

Gelineau pursued a profile that became the backbone of the story, that of Miguel Panduwinata, an 11-year-old who was traveling with his older brother to visit their grandmother _ and who had been raising ominous questions in the days before the flight.

“What would happen to my body if I was buried?” the normally cheerful boy asked his worried mother. “Would I not feel anything because our souls go back to God?”

Working from names on a flight manifest, Gelineau tracked down an uncle of the boy by phone as he arrived in Amsterdam. She interviewed him about his nephew (“He told me about Miguel’s eerie premonition and the hairs on my arms stood up.”) Then, over a couple of days, she gently persuaded him to put her in touch with his sister, the boy’s mother, for a 40-minute phone interview finally arranged at 2:30 a.m. Gelineau’s time.

“She kept saying, ‘I should have listened to him.’ I knew immediately that was the end of my story,” Gelineau said. “And I knew Miguel was going to be the beginning.”

Gelineau’s story was supplemented by an abridged version _ but not simply a truncating of the original. “There was no way to abridge six examples into 700 words and have any characters really come across,” Rajkumar said. “So we offered our single best anecdote instead as a shorter option, calling it The Boy Who Knew.

The response to the story — which was published around the world and shared widely on social media and mobile — was extraordinary.

Thousands of readers commented, many saying they were in tears as they wrote.

“The glimpses into the lives of these people, esp. Miguel, their loved ones, favorite foods, sports, made it all too real, almost as if I knew them,” said one.

Another offered thanks “for dedicating the time and space to this heart breaking, and yet heart warming glimpse into the photo albums of these precious lives.” This reader hoped that each family personally affected “has the chance to treasure this story.”

Many did, as notes from some victims’ loved ones made clear.

Rob Ayley’s mother wrote that she’d include the story in a “memory box” she was putting together for her son. The girlfriend of another victim wrote, “Thank you so so much from the deep deep deepest bottom of our hearts.” And the uncle of Miguel said talking about the boy and his brother for the story had been therapeutic for the family, a source of strength.

For combining exemplary craft and compassion to achieve a distinctive kind of world beat, Gelineau wins this week’s $500 prize.

Deep source network, experience underpin AP reporting in Gaza

The Associated Press team in Gaza is reporting the news as they live it, working quickly — under extremely difficult conditions — to verify and debunk information for AP’s customers around the world. Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes lauded their efforts in a recent memo to staff:

It was late Sunday afternoon [July 20] and a brief cease-fire had silenced a raging battle in the Gaza neighborhood of Shijaiyah. Dozens of Palestinians were dead, hundreds wounded and thousands fleeing. In a matter of minutes, the battle would resume.

AP Gaza photographer Hatem Moussa, touring the area, caught sight of someone he knew from Gaza’s Civil Defense who was searching for bodies and followed him into a badly damaged building. From under the rubble came the barely audible sound of a family trapped: A woman crying for help alongside her husband, 7-year-old niece and three dead relatives.

“I’m here under the shop,” the woman cried out. “God, please, I can’t breathe.”

Moussa called for AP backup. Visiting photographer Lefteris Pitarakis and video journalist Dalton Bennett were not far away; upon arrival, they first determined whether they might help the family, and then shot pictures and video. It was too dangerous for rescuers to bring in bulldozers. As the AP team rushed out, Moussa spotted a Red Cross team and passed on the exact location. Hours later, rescue workers returned and saved the family. The Civil Defense team made a point of calling AP, inviting the team back to the hospital for a follow-up story.

It was just one of several instances of AP being a step ahead of the competition in the most challenging of environments: war in a small, sealed-off territory where they both live and work. In this setting and under these circumstances, the Gaza staff performed brilliantly, advancing a story of global interest to earn the Beat of the Week award.

For the Gaza staff, this is more than a news story. It’s their life. Covering war is hard enough; worrying if your family will survive the day is simply impossible for most of us to imagine. Consider a few snapshots from recent days:

Moussa was having the pre-dawn Ramadan meal with his wife and four children when the airstrikes began. They fled, fearing death. Driver Said Jalis‘ family, his wife heavily pregnant, took refuge at a U.N. school, sleeping on the floor; his 10th child was born Monday [July 21]. Writer Ibrahim Barzak‘s family moved twice in less than a week before deciding home was safest; he turns the TV off when his children are near and sleeps less than four hours. Fares Elwan, the caretaker, sleeps on a mattress in the office hallway because it’s too dangerous to return to see his 11 children. Majed Hamdan, a photographer, fixer and driver, put his family in the room looking away from a built-up area in Shijaiyah. “If we die, we all die together,” he says.

And yet, routinely, the Gaza staffers put all this aside, mining their excellent network of sources and years of experience. Reporting into the Jerusalem bureau — and working closely with AP staff journalists in Israel who are themselves under siege from Hamas rockets – their professionalism puts AP consistently ahead on one of the world’s most competitive stories.

They know every inch of the strip, and are able to quickly verify or debunk reports. Besides covering and facilitating stories themselves, they’ve created a crucial foundation for the visiting team of Senior Producer Khaled Kazziha, writer Karin Laub, Pitarakis and Bennett.

Just ask Pitarakis, who has covered conflicts across the globe: Working with the experienced Gaza staff, he says, makes all the difference. “Without a doubt, this is the game-changing scenario,” he says. “These guys set up this amazing system. The drivers know everything. The local photographers know everyone. It’s a constant flow of information and I wouldn’t be able to operate without it. These guys tell me: go there, go here.”

This well-honed newsgathering system has been working throughout the conflict. On July 13, APTN producer Najib Abu Jobain put AP ahead with the first images of families fleeing the northern towns of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun, which were coming under heavy attack from Israeli tank fire.

“I got a phone call from my daughter the moment she saw the donkey carts, trucks and cars arriving at the U.N. school (where the displaced where seeking shelter).” AP got the pictures at 2 a.m., about six hours ahead of Reuters.

And the staff has been working this way for years: Back in 2011, it was Barzak who broke the news that Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit had been handed back to Israeli forces.

For valiant and extraordinary efforts that helped make the AP the leading source for news on this crucial story, the Gaza-based staff wins this week’s $500 award.

They are: chief APTN producer Najib Abu Jobain, correspondent Ibrahim Barzak, photographer Adel Hana, cameraman Rashed Rasheed, photographer Hatem Moussa, photographer Khalil Hamra, APTN producer Wafa Shurafa, photographer-fixer Majed Hamdan, cameraman Tamer Ziara, camerman Yacoub Abu Galwa, driver Ismail Shurabasi, driver Said Jalis and caretaker Fares Elwan.

On the Brazil beat: AP covers the World Cup

As the excitement of the World Cup unfolds across Brazil, AP journalists are covering the action in text, video and photos for an array of customers around the world.

“The AP journalists and technicians on the ground have been unflagging in their mission to tell the whole story of this tournament,” said AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara. “Beyond our vibrant coverage of every match, they’ve been providing crucial context and unique perspectives on the political and cultural aspects of this global event.”

From street protests to rain-soaked press conferences to the stadium sidelines, here are a few highlights of the AP team at work on the Brazil beat.

For World Cup news, download the AP Mobile app or follow AP on Twitter and Facebook.

Behind the Sochi scene with AP

As the excitement of the Winter Games unfolds, AP journalists are providing breaking news and images and crucial context for customers around the world.

“The AP team has been tireless,” AP Vice President and Managing Editor Lou Ferrara said from Sochi. “They aren’t just covering the games — they are telling stories that no one else has, with a global perspective and in video, text, audio and stunning photos. Credit goes to the AP journalists and the technology team.”

From laying cable on snowy mountains and testing remote cameras to securing exclusive interviews and capturing iconic moments, here are a few highlights of AP reporters, editors, visual journalists and technicians at work behind the Sochi scene:

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  • With the threat of terrorism looming over the games, authorities said they would clamp down on travelers being able to bring liquids into Russia. Karl Ritter, Stockholm bureau chief working at the Olympics, kept AP ahead of the competition with a story about how easy it was to bring banned carry-on items into Sochi.
  • Despite complaints of stray dogs and unfinished hotels, AP’s Jim Heintz, a Westerner who’s lived in Russia for 15 years, concluded that the games reveal “some promising signs for the country.”
  • When a glitch caused one of the Olympic rings not to open during the opening ceremony Moscow business reporter Nataliya Vasilyeva quickly confirmed that Russian TV viewers saw a rehearsal reel that showed all of the rings working – not the glitch witnessed by the stadium crowd.
  • And David Goldman, an AP photographer based in Atlanta, was a pool photographer in the VIP room with Russian President Vladimir Putin when it happened. What did Putin see? It turns out, he didn’t see the problem either, as AP was first to determine from Goldman’s images.

Follow AP staff at the Olympics in Sochi on this Twitter list and learn more about AP’s coverage in this video with Global Sports Editor Michael Giarrusso.

Paddling in sludge to get the story

In an era of smartphones and social media, an AP team opted for a more rudimentary tool to get the story: a canoe. The following note to staff from Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes describes how AP journalists paddled into the middle of a river to get a firsthand look at a coal-ash spill in North Carolina, determine the scope of the mishap and keep AP ahead of the competition:

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Duke Energy estimates that up to 82,000 tons of ash has been released from a break in a 48-inch storm water pipe at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden N.C. on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Amy Adams, North Carolina campaign coordinator with Appalachian Voices, shows her hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River swirling in the background as state and federal environmental officials continued their investigations of a spill of coal ash into the river in Danville, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What’s the most important word in journalism? How about “go.” Sometimes, you just have to go there. Even when there is out in the middle of a dirty river best reached by canoe.

That’s just what Michael Biesecker, Raleigh newsman, and Gerry Broome, Raleigh photographer, did when they sensed that the impact of a big coal-ash spill at a Duke Energy power plant in Eden, N.C., could be much worse than anyone was letting on. Turned out they were right. They could see that plainly when they paddled out into the middle of the ash-choked Dan River.

Biesecker had hit upon the idea of using the canoe – his canoe, by the way – as he and Carolinas News Editor Tim Rogers talked over the best ways to examine exactly what the spill had done to the river. Biesecker loaded it onto his car, and they were off. While he and Broome were putting it in the river, a man affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliance, the environmental group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., offered to go with them in his own canoe. They agreed and he showed them to some places along the river.

Back at the spill site, Duke Energy officials and state regulators were trying to downplay the effects even as the river turned a deathly looking grey. Biesecker and  Broome started to find the elements of a very different story when they hit the river, the only journalists to do so at that point.

From the canoe, Biesecker was able to report that downstream of the spill, gray sludge was several inches deep. That became evident when a paddle was pushed down into the muck. In addition, the AP team saw that the riverbank was coated for more than two miles. And when the Dan crested overnight, a distinctive gray line stood in contrast to the brown bank, “like a dirty ring on a bathtub.”

Their reporting put the AP ahead on the extent and immediate effects of the spill even as hundreds of Duke workers scrambled to plug a hole in a pipe at the bottom of the 27-acre pond where the toxic ash had been stored. Up to 82,000 tons of ash mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water had spilled into the river.

More would be revealed in test results and court filings over the next four days, as Biesecker and Mitch Weiss, Charlotte correspondent, kept the AP reporting well ahead. Biesecker followed with a comprehensive story on a dispute over arsenic levels in the river downstream from the spill. He and Weiss then provided with a look at how the state was acting to try and shield Duke from federal lawsuits over the coal ash sites the company long had insisted were safely engineered and maintained.

The eyewitness on-the-river story and Broome’s photos played well across the state and around the country, caught the attention of national environmental groups. The ensuing AP reporting on the spill was placed prominently even on the site of the Charlotte Observer, which has assigned a reporter to cover just the spill.

The AP scoops also spurred Duke to share their testing results with us. In addition, after not addressing the spill for much of a week, Gov. Pat McCrory went to the spill site the day after we asked him why he had not been there yet.

This week, federal authorities launched a criminal investigation into the spill, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh issuing subpoenas seeking records from both Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources related to the Dan River incident and the state’s oversight of the company’s 30 other coal ash dumps in North Carolina.

For paddling further than the competition to get their story, Biesecker, Broome and Weiss share this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

‘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.

Q&A: Uncovering the dirty cost of green energy

The Associated Press today published a major investigative report by Washington bureau journalists Dina Cappiello and Matt Apuzzo showing that the ethanol era has proved far more damaging to the environment than the government has acknowledged.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they touched off a cascade of unintended consequences, including wiping out millions of acres of conservation land, polluting water and destroying habitat.

Ted Bridis

Ted Bridis

Here, Ted Bridis, the lead editor on the months-long investigation, describes what went into reporting the hidden, dirty cost of this green energy source:

What prompted AP to explore the topic of ethanol?
This year, among other stories, the Washington investigative team has been exploring some of the little-known costs and consequences of green energy. This project developed out of reporting by and conversations with Dina Cappiello, our excellent environmental reporter, who was “loaned” to our investigations team in the newsroom away from her everyday specialty beat responsibilities to work on some longer-term reporting efforts.

What were the most striking findings?
We were able to conservatively quantify how many acres farmers had set aside for conservation purposes but, driven in part by Washington’s biofuels mandate, had been converted to crops. The figure was at least five million acres _ more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined _ that have vanished on President Barack Obama’s watch.

We also conducted by computer a satellite-imagery analysis to show how many more acres of pristine grassland in the Corn Belt had been plowed into cornfields or soybeans since 2006, the year before the ethanol mandate passed. Insiders revealed to our reporters how the government’s analysis of ethanol’s carbon dioxide footprint was flawed and influenced by input from the industry. But in many ways no one in government is keeping track of its environmental toll.  

I also think one of our findings was how friendly and accommodating we found farmers and others in the Midwest when our journalists visited and explained the story we were investigating; many farmers, especially, explained they were genuinely conflicted by economic forces, chasing corn profits at the expense of continued conservation.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in reporting this project?
The tale of U.S. ethanol policy is complicated for many different audiences: farmers, motorists, policy makers, politicians, environmentalists, farmers, scientists and others. Turning months of reporting about agricultural and energy policies, scores of interviews and hefty data analyses into a narrative that readers will find compelling and informative is always a challenge.

How did you draw on AP’s resources — around the world and in the 50 states — to do it?
This project represents the efforts of dozens of AP journalists, photographers, video producers, data experts, editors and others who helped in its production

See the AP reporting here, which includes companion photos, video and a detailed interactive. Join a conversation about the AP’s reporting on ethanol today at 3 p.m. ET on Reddit.