AP executive editor extols accountability journalism

Oct. 2, 2013
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll

AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll this week accepted the Carr Van Anda Award at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.

The award is named for a pivotal managing editor of The New York Times, who studied at Ohio University beginning in 1880.

In Carroll’s remarks on campus, she underscored the importance of accountability journalism, saying it “should be what we do on every beat, in every location, every single day.  We eschew that to our peril, and there are perils enough in our profession.”

She added: “How do you make it part of your everyday work?

“Everybody knows the Old Five W's of basic journalism _ Who What When Where Why.

“They are foundational, of course, but in my view, the most important questions in journalism start with a different word _ HOW?”

Here is the full text of Carroll’s remarks:

What an honor it is to be here this evening. Let me first offer my congratulations to the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism for 90 years of excellence.

So many outstanding journalists have gotten their start here and I’m proud to call some of them my friends, including Andy Alexander, whose distinguished career at Cox Newspapers and the Washington Post is matched only by his enormous generosity as a friend. One of the classiest people in the profession.

Also Alan Miller, a clever and deft managing editor at the Columbus Dispatch and hard-working industry leader, particularly through his work on the Associated Press Managing Editors' Board of Directors.

At the AP, OU claims Political Editor Liz Sidoti and reporter Phil Elliott, sports writer Jay Cohen plus East Africa Bureau Chief Jason Straziuso, whose work on the Nairobi mall attack has been stellar, particularly since he came off paternity leave to cover it while the attack was still underway (I had to keep adding to this list as the OU alums in AP offered all kinds of shoutouts). And I cannot forget my longtime friend and former colleague Dick (Richard) Carelli, who covered the U.S. Supreme Court for many years and in the late 1970s, taught this young reporter to order a proper gin and tonic.

They, among many hundreds of others, have contributed to the profession and championed the changes that make journalism better for readers, listeners and viewers ... all in the tradition of Carr Van Anda.

For that is exactly what he did and indeed what we all must do every day, in flush times and lean. Make the journalism better. Drill on accuracy and speed and clarity. Organize so you can attack a story. Anticipate questions and answer them. Think about what the news consumer needs and give it to them.

Carr Van Anda is most remembered for the way he organized and delivered outstanding coverage of one of the biggest stories of his century, the sinking of the Titanic. Breaking news is a huge part of what we do every day at The Associated Press, of course.

But just as important is News that We Break, particularly the coverage that holds governments and institutions accountable to the people they serve.

In settings like this, we usually talk about that kind accountability journalism in a kind of high-minded way ... we are fulfilling our watchdog role.

In truth, accountability journalism should be what we do on every beat, in every location, every single day.  We eschew that to our peril, and there are perils enough in our profession.

How do you make it part of your everyday work?

Everybody knows the Old Five W's of basic journalism _ Who What When Where Why.

They are foundational, of course, but in my view, the most important questions in journalism start with a different word _ HOW?

As the news cycle spins faster and faster, the basic facts of a new event _ those 5 Ws _ are easily digested and soon forgotten. What people crave are answers to the HOW questions.

How did that happen?
How do you know that?
How are you going to stop it? Or start it?

The How questions get into the plumbing of what happened, where you can explore how it might have been prevented, how previous efforts to stop it worked (or didn't), how officials plan to seek remedies or solutions. And later, you can go back and ask how those solutions are coming along.

Answering those HOW questions, and all the others that follow, are where journalists prove their greatest value to society.

Our future as a profession depends on us making this our mission every day. We cannot survive simply showing up for work every day and waiting to cover news that breaks through no effort on our part _ the actions of God and man. You know ... Rivers Flood. Governor Holds Press Conference. Opposition Seethes. Local Team Loses Another Squeaker. Etc.

We have to find those stories that spring from your curiosity (or the curiosity of a reader), from your questions.

Here are a few examples from AP bureaus around the country.  Listen for the HOW questions ...

Columbus reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins was chasing a tip that Ohio State President Gordon Gee had said something off in a speech to the school's athletic council. HOW to be sure? Andrew filed a public records request for the audio and minutes of the remark. The tipster was wrong about what Gee said _ this is why you verify things _ but what the president actually said made for a lively story anyway. You guys know this one already, I'm sure ... he referred to the folks at Notre Dame as "damn Catholics" who can't be trusted and took a few other swipes at other universities and conferences. It was enough to very quickly cost Gee his job.

Knowing HOW to track down original information and how to navigate public records requests is a critical skill for every journalist.



After a Colorado corrections officer was killed by an offender wearing an ankle bracelet and a girl in New York was raped by someone also wearing an ankle bracelet, two AP reporters wondered HOW many other problems there had been and in general, HOW the ankle bracelet program was working.

Not too well, based on what David Caruso and Nicholas Riccardi found. Turns out so many sex offenders, parolees and people out on probation or bail are wearing the bracelets, law enforcement agencies are flooded by alerts. The things go off when the battery is running low and when the wearer bumps into something. Authorities have no way to distinguish the low-battery alarms from the "he's out the door and booking it down the street" alarms. In both the Colorado and New York cases, law enforcement missed the alerts that told them the wearers were leaving when they shouldn't. With tragic results.

Many laws and programs are set up to address a problem. A great deal of terrific accountability work can come from simply checking back in on them -- HOW is it going? Is the program/law/bill/initiative solving what it was intended to solve?

If the answer is yes, hey, do a story. We can't just write about stuff that goes wrong all the time. Highlighting things that work _ and HOW that happened _ makes terrific accountability reporting, too.

Here's another How question ... How big is that problem?

In Ohio, a former police captain spent nearly 15 years in prison, largely because of a bite mark found on his ex-wife's blood-soaked body. He was released in January after DNA tests proved him innocent. Cincinnati reporter Amanda Myers wanted to know HOW widespread the problem might be, so she reviewed everything she could find, eventually compiling the most comprehensive count to date of those cleared of rape or murder because of bite marks _ 24 men since 2000. Yet bite-mark evidence is still being used to convict people, even though science doesn't back it up, the American Dental Association doesn't recognize it and the FBI doesn't use it.

Of course, there are the occasional stories that don't make you ask How. The only H question here is HUH, and possibly Are You Kidding Me?

After an SUV carrying Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad was allowed to zoom along at 90 mph without a ticket, Iowa City’s Ryan Foley learned that it was all in the license plate. His digging revealed that more than 3,200 _ three thousand two hundred Iowa government license plates tied to local, state and federal agencies carry a designation that exempts them from tickets sent by traffic cameras. Nice perk.

In Vermont, state officials got a lot of credit for doing things well after Hurricane Irene caused massive shock flooding that washed away hundreds of miles of roads and bridges and homes two years ago. Reporter Dave Gram recently found one eye-popping exception. After the flooding, when people were missing and residents were stranded in soaked homes, state crews were dispatched to the home of Deb Markowitz, Vermont’s Secretary of Natural Resources, to rescue her ... wait for it ... her houseplants. Gram then got named sources to confirm state crews and equipment were used to move the plants 14 miles. In an understatement, a former state official noted that it was not the department’s “finest hour.”

We shared these stories, and many others, with the entire AP staff _ not just the journalists _ because everyone in the company believes in our news mission: Excel at breaking news and NEWS WE BREAK.

And circulating HOW I GOT THAT STORY, THAT PHOTO, THAT VIDEO is not just a powerful affirming message ... it is a great teaching tool.

Journalists read about how one of their colleagues had an idea, followed a lead, solved an access issue and figure out how to do that, and more, in their own patch.

And it works. Our Beat of the Week contest, which rewards and explains the best visual, audio or reporting scoop each week, is a decade old and going strong.

Two years ago, we started a Best of the States contest that does the same thing with the best state scoop each month. Some of the stories I just told you about were honored in that way.

Accountability is not simply a factor that we can apply to others. We must be accountable for our work as well. Our readers remember our daily coverage for a little while, our scoops for a while longer than that and our mistakes, they remember for years and years and years.

So even in the hurly-burly of today's news cycles, we must be rigorous about our newsgathering processes. How questions help us here as well.

That's because one of the most important questions you can ask is "HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT?"

Ask it of everyone who tells you something. This is incredibly important in the middle of a big breaking news story, when even the most seasoned public official may go all loosey goosey about facts, repeating what he has heard secondhand or what she was told by a pal in another agency.

It's nearly impossible to get everything right in the middle of those big stories and that's not a statement I make easily. But sometimes, simply reporting what the authorities believe at the time, while utterly true, may be insufficient. You've got to add some context _ they are in the middle of a burning hairball.

Something an official tells you may be true at that moment, but it may not be the eternal truth because things are still happening. And so you can't report the "of the moment" facts in the same way you report the "true for all time" facts.

 

After the shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington two weeks ago, everyone reported accurately that authorities said that one known shooter was dead and they were searching for two more people who might have been involved. That was a frightening idea ... most workplace shootings are the work of one person, almost always one man. One or two others? That raised the prospect of an organized attack, maybe homegrown terrorists. And because it was a military installation, and the men they sought were supposedly in different uniforms.

The possibility of more than one shooter raised so many questions that the best thing to do on behalf of news consumers was to tell them what the police chief was saying _ after all, she was saying it on live television beamed around the world ... there's no point in trying to be coy about reporting that ... and adding in all the questions that raised.

Hours later, deep into the evening, the chief said that both men had been cleared and were no longer an issue. They had been seen on closed-circuit videos acting in ways that make police suspicious, which turned out to be because they were trying to get away during a pretty frightening shooting attack.

News organizations that just stuck to the facts and didn't include sensible questions and context, might have given their readers and viewers whiplash. "They're looking for two other guys!"

Hours later, "Never mind."

So you see, the accountability questions serve us in every story, most of all as things are still unfolding ...

It has been a great pleasure for me to be here with you this evening. I am humbled by this honor and grateful for this time with you.


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