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Damage Control at the AP: Restoring Trust

Byron Calame, News Literacy Project Journalist Fellow
Terry McAuliffe
Terry McAuliffe was the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia when the Associated Press distributed an erroneous report about him. Photo by Edward Kimmel via Flickr
Byron Calame, a former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and a former public editor of The New York Times, uses the Associated Press's handling of a serious error in early October to explore the kind of accountability that consumers should expect from quality journalism.
One clue to a news organization’s fundamental commitment to credibility is how aggressively it holds itself and its staff accountable for journalistic failures.
 
How promptly and fully does it acknowledge and correct the mistake?  When and how does it discipline the people responsible for failures?
The Associated Press’s handling of an erroneous Oct. 9 political story offers a look at how a serious news organization’s fundamental commitment to credibility can manifest itself in difficult situations. The venerable worldwide news service has provided little explanation about the reasoning that went into its response to the inaccurate story. Accounts from The Washington Post and Politico as well as other publications provide credible accounts of what transpired —  and grist for this “Teachable Moments” item.
 
The 112-word story from the AP’s Richmond, Va., bureau was brief, but terribly wrong.  It erroneously reported that a 2011 indictment alleged that Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate in the state’s tight gubernatorial race, had lied to a federal investigator. The 2011 federal indictment had focused on the Rhode Island operator of a death-benefit investment scheme who pleaded guilty last year to fraud and conspiracy charges. The AP didn’t wait to get comment from McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman whose name had appeared on a list of investors in the operation filed in court that morning.
 
The story was written by Bob Lewis, the AP’s Virginia political reporter and a 28-year veteran with a reputation for reliability. It wound up being edited on an ad hoc basis, according to an Oct. 22 Washington Post report. Lewis’s immediate editor in Richmond was busy and asked a regional editor in Atlanta, to handle the story. The report’s publication at 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 9 led to a flat denial by the McAuliffe campaign.
 
Lewis reportedly had assumed that the reference in the 2011 indictment to a “T.M.” who had allegedly lied to a federal investigator was McAuliffe. The Washington Post story said, “Lewis had mistakenly assumed that the initials ‘T.M.’ on court documents referred to McAuliffe….”
 
Prosecutors have confirmed it wasn’t McAuliffe, but have never identified the person. It seems likely that Lewis, as a veteran political reporter, had received a tip about the lying allegation from supporters of McAuliffe’s opponent; The Post’s Oct. 22 account notes that the newspaper had been offered the tip and that “several journalists, including some at the AP,” said the allegation hint “was pushed to news organizations by the campaign of the rival.”
 
With its credibility in question, the AP responded swiftly and forcefully to acknowledge and correct the error and to hold those responsible accountable.
 
A retraction went out 98 minutes after the story had been distributed  —  along with the announcement that an internal review was under way. The retraction acknowledged that the story had hinged on an assumption about initials: “The indictment did not identify McAuliffe as the ‘T.M.’ who allegedly lied to investigators,” the AP wrote.
 
Twelve days later, the AP fired Lewis and the two editors, telling the News Media Guild there had been “gross misconduct” and egregious violations of AP’s standards and practices, according to the union’s president. Defending the severe punishment, the AP cited the failure to give McAuliffe time to respond and the “guesswork backed up with no reporting.”  
 
In highlighting the failure to talk to McAuliffe, the AP showed it understood that the lapse had kept the story from fulfilling two fundamental journalistic standards crucial to credibility: verification and fairness. Waiting to hear from McAuliffe could have met both the need to verify and the obligation to be fair  — and stopped the erroneous story in its tracks.
 
The firings were criticized as excessive or disproportionate by various bloggers, academics, politicians, union leaders, and other journalists.  Some contended that that the erroneous story resulted from an unintentional mistake rather than a knowing violation of journalistic standards. Many said suspensions would have been a more appropriate alternative. Indeed, a case can be made that one- or two-month suspensions  — meaning an annual pay cut of 8% or more and a notable career blemish  — could have been sufficiently tough to make the point.
 
In any case, this review suggests the AP’s response to the erroneous story was driven by a desire to demonstrate its commitment to credibility. The punishments have reminded the entire AP staff  — and all journalists elsewhere who hear about them  — how essential verification and fairness are to maintaining credibility.
 
The bottom line: The application of these essential standards, and holding employees accountable when they fail to meet them, is one of the traits that sets quality journalism apart in the digital age. It can be a helpful clue for consumers as they decide what sources to trust.