At around 9 p.m. on Saturday night, the AP newsroom was abuzz with reports on Twitter and elsewhere that former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno had died. AP associate managing editor Ted Anthony had been tracking the story of Paterno’s health since the afternoon, and he sent an email to roughly a dozen AP supervisors to make sure no one jumped the gun and declared Paterno dead.
“We’re hearing a lot of reports about a lot of things right now vis a vis Paterno,” he wrote. “It’s imperative to make sure that we don’t put anything out prematurely — keeping the lesson in mind that other news orgs learned with the Giffords shooting — so this is a reminder: Please be judicious about putting anything anywhere in any editorial system that could make it out live into the AP report prematurely.”
Just over a year ago, Reuters, NPR, CNN and other major news organizations distributed false death reports about U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. AP managed to avoid making that mistake. On Saturday night Anthony’s memo and host of other actions ensured it was also correct about the Paterno story.
So how did AP manage to avoid these two highly publicized errors?
Anthony said AP puts thought and effort into creating “the conditions for accuracy” that can guide the actions of journalists when news hits. It’s an approach that emphasizes constant communication and reinforcement of verification as a core part of what AP does.
“A lot of people look at accuracy as only a decision that’s made in the moment: do we go with this or do we not go with this,” he said. “Obviously that’s a fundamental part of it, but I think that being accurate also involves creating the conditions for accuracy in advance, even if it’s only a few minutes.”
Anthony is the senior AP editor on weekends, which means he was working when the shooting happened in Arizona last January, and when the Paterno death reports emerged on Saturday evening. There are similarities in how AP handled both events, and also one key difference. Below is a look at how AP created the “conditions for accuracy” for these events, and one lesson learned during the Giffords coverage that AP applied this past weekend.
Setting the standard
Even before Penn State student news organization Onward State reported that Paterno had died on Saturday night, AP reporters and editors had already discussed how they would handle Paterno’s death.
That afternoon, AP reporters in State College began hearing from sources that Paterno’s health was deteriorating. This was confirmed in a statement issued by the family.
“So at that point we had conversations, the usual planning conversations, but also we acknowledged there could very well be a flurry of these more-dire-than-the-reality reports [of Paterno’s health], and we needed to be aware of that, and we needed to expect these and not be surprised and apply our usual standards,” Anthony said.
The key journalists involved in the Paterno coverage came together to agree on the information they would require for AP to declare Paterno dead. This provided clarity for all involved, and helped them focus when false reports began surfacing.
That conversation was initiated by AP deputy sports editor Mary Byrne and included Anthony and reporter Genaro C. Armas, who was in State College, among others. Together, they agreed any Paterno death report needed to be confirmed by AP’s own reporting and sources on the ground. They would not issue an AP alert based on what other news organizations were saying. They also agreed to communicate whenever new information emerged.
“At every juncture we have a trigger point that says, ‘Are we ready to file this? Do we have the sourcing? Are we going to make the decision to tell millions of people this?’” Anthony said.
Nothing would go out until those questions were answered to everyone’s satisfaction.
Death reports emerge
At 8:45 p.m. Onward State tweeted that Paterno was dead. The news immediately began to spread. As planned, the team of AP editors and reporters checked in to see what they thought of the information being reported elsewhere.
“Our people who were on the ground there and who were in touch with the Paterno family were not comfortable with [the report] — they did not think it was true,” Anthony said.
As Armas worked to receive official word from the Paterno family and other sources, Anthony drafted and sent his internal email just after 9 p.m. He wanted to make sure all senior AP editors on duty knew a team was tracking the Paterno story, and that no one was to move anything Paterno-related until an alert went out.
“We wanted to keep all the [Paterno] material away from the precipice, if you will,” Anthony said.
Armas soon received word from the family that Paterno was alive, and he relayed that to Byrne. AP now had the confirmed information it was seeking. The question now was what to do with it.
Applying a lesson from Giffords
Anthony and Byrne decided to take two new steps that were a direct result of a lesson learned during the Giffords coverage a year earlier.
In the aftermath of the shooting in Arizona and the resulting death reports, Anthony got on the phone with AP deputy west editor Josh Hoffner. They had to decide how to handle the reports of Giffords’ death.
“We both agreed, again like [Saturday] night, with something this high stakes we would rather be behind and be right than be ahead and be wrong,” Anthony said.
As with the Paterno story, their standard was that AP’s own reporting needed to confirm or refute her death. The difference is that last year the AP remained silent both publicly and to its members and customers while the Giffords rumors swirled.
“What we decided was because we’re operating in this real-time environment now, Mary [Byrne] and I talked and decided this was an appropriate time to try something we had been talking about in general, which was to use our social media presence to refute reports,” Anthony said.
AP soon tweeted from its main account that, “Paterno family spokesman Dan McGinn tells the AP that reports of former Penn State coach’s death are ‘not true’”
That tweet played a major role in helping stem the flow of misinformation on Twitter.
It was new because AP isn’t normally in the position of knocking down rumors. Anthony said the team felt they needed to share the family’s denial to help spread the correct information. (See this related Poynter story about how social media editors increasingly find themselves combating misinformation.)
Anthony also followed up with a second piece of communication: he issued an advisory to AP clients on the east coast and in the mid-west, as these areas were approaching the Saturday evening print deadline. It was a similar message sent in the tweet:
Editors: For your planning purposes, Paterno family spokesman Dan McGinn has just told The Associated Press that reports of former Penn State coach’s death are ‘not true.’
The tweet and advisory were both new procedures for AP, and they grew out of a lesson learned during the Giffords coverage.
“We went silent last year with Giffords to our customers and on Twitter,” Anthony said. “We didn’t say much, and so people were left to believe maybe the AP weren’t on top of things, when the fact is we very much were.”
He said this kind of constant communication is necessary in a world of real-time news and information.
“What we have learned in the time since [Giffords] is that there are options on real time media to bring our reporting to bear and say ‘We have no evidence of this’ … and to advise our customers more vigorously that we are in middle of pursuing this, and right now our reporters on the ground have no evidence that this is true.”
One of the key lessons from AP’s approach is the importance of preparation and communication in creating the “conditions for accuracy.”
You can’t expect people to make the right decision in the heat of the moment if you don’t provide guidance and an opportunity for communication before and during a news event.
Anthony said a related aspect is empowering all AP staffers to raise questions and instigate conversations, regardless of their positions.
“One of the things we’ve started promoting in the past several months is these conversation aren’t top down conversations,” Anthony said. “These conversations are ones that anybody can have and nobody will be slapped down for bringing up an ethical issue. Those conversations always have a place. To some extent, democratizing those is a huge part of this.”
This reinforces a culture that values the questioning of information. It also stimulates an ongoing conversation about AP values and practices – a conversation anyone can lead or take part in.
“It’s about having conversations before any particular news event and saying ‘This is who we are as an organization and these are the things that we value,’” Anthony said. “One of AP’s major value points is our verification process and our accuracy.”
Another key lesson from AP is the importance of providing reporters and editors with ways to channel their energy and adrenaline when breaking news or a big story hits.
“We have a lot of pent up people ready to do the news that they’re good at doing,” Anthony said. “The question is how do you direct that into the most productive and most aggressive and wise approach? We have loads of talented journalists who are always thinking about that, but in the heat of the moment we rely on everybody to have these conversations.”
In this respect, the conversations provide a way for the team to focus and decide on a plan of attack that is based on AP’s values. It ensures everyone is engaged and on the same page; that reduces the likelihood of a miscommunication or rogue decision that causes a bad mistake.
“I had a colleague say something to me a few years ago, and this has really stuck in my brain: ‘What we don’t say at the AP is just as important as what we do say,’” Anthony said. “Our news product is not only the news we put out but, the judgment we apply to it.”