Nov. 15, 2019

Best of the States

AP Investigation: At least 1,680 aging US dams pose a risk to thousands

Severe storms, extreme flooding and aging infrastructure present a rising peril throughout much of the U.S., but trying to assess the risks has been extremely difficult. The reason: The federal agency overseeing the nation’s dams has sealed off the most essential information about their condition and the potential threats to those living downstream.

Prying that information loose took the kind of dedicated, 50-state effort that the AP is uniquely positioned to pursue. Data journalist Michelle Minkoff and Northern New England correspondent Michael Casey, collaborating with state government team member David Lieb and a visual team led by video journalist Allen Breed – as well as a cast of AP state reporters, photographers and data journalists – produced a deeply reported and visually stunning package revealing the dangers of nearly 1,700 aging dams, from Hawaii to Massachusetts.

Some two years in the making, the package resulted in explosive play – more than 100,000 page views on AP News and more than 80 front pages. 

For their exhaustive efforts to unlock critical public information and relay the findings in an engaging fashion, Minkoff, Casey, Lieb and Breed win this week’s Best of the States award.

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Nov. 01, 2019

Best of the Week

AP investigation: Ukraine’s Zelenskiy pressured by Trump months before call

Desmond Butler and Michael Biesecker, global investigations reporters in Washington, wanted to fill out the timeline of the diplomatic scandal at the heart of House impeachment inquiry. While Biesecker worked sources in Washington, Butler traveled to Ukraine to meet with associates of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and with other sources developed over years of investigating wrongdoing in the former Soviet Union.

What they learned moved the needle on a complex narrative — associates of the Ukrainian leader said that pressure from the Trump White House started much earlier than was known previously, dating from shortly after Zelenskiy’s election in April, and before he took office as president. 

The scoop was the latest in a series of breaking stories and exclusives by the pair that have defined coverage of the impeachment investigation and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s role in it.

For meticulous work that led to a major scoop and widened the horizons of the ongoing Ukraine-Trump story, Butler and Biesecker share AP’s Best of the Week award. 

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Nov. 01, 2019

Best of the States

Experience, persistence pay off with breaking news: US to collect asylum seekers’ DNA

Immigration and Homeland Security reporter Colleen Long’s ears perked up in early October when she heard agency officials mention “CODIS” as they briefed reporters on the likelihood they would expand their practice of collecting DNA from migrants. 

CODIS, she knew from experience, was an FBI database usually associated with violent crimes, so Long was surprised to hear of its use in connection with migrants whose only crime was crossing the border illegally. Long followed up with detailed questions at the briefing but didn’t get answers, so she kept pressing officials.

Her persistence was rewarded with an advance briefing on the new rule, and additional details about how the DNA policy would be implemented. Long’s story moved hours ahead of the official announcement, becoming one of the most-read stories of the day. 

For making the early connection to the policy implications of the DNA database, then pressing the issue with officials until she had the exclusive details, Long earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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Nov. 01, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

AP leads coverage of the 2020 US Census

for breaking news leading up to the 2020 U.S. headcount. Starting with a smart follow-up by Schneider showing that federal government’s attempts to get states to surrender driver’s license information have been a bust so far, and concluding with a weekend spotlight story by Seitz and Lerman showing how new concerns about misinformation and fraud could cause major problems for the Census Bureau.https://bit.ly/36mZDqShttps://bit.ly/2N0gbgI

Oct. 25, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

AP: U.S. Census Bureau asks states for citizenship information

for following up after President Donald Trump’s executive order asking federal agencies to seek citizenship information when the U.S. Supreme Court said the question couldn't be included in the 2020 Census. Schneider learned something the Census Bureau wasn’t eager to reveal – that they were in the process of asking motor vehicle divisions in all 50 states to provide information from driver’s license data, including citizenship status. https://bit.ly/32KWOO3

Sept. 20, 2019

Best of the Week

AP offers compelling takes on two oft-reported crises: Migrant rescues and opioid trafficking

They are crises that have received significant attention while playing out in different parts of the world, but the efforts of a trio of AP journalists have shed new light on both the perilous journey of migrants in the Mediterranean and the opioid epidemic in America.

The work of the journalists, Renata Brito aboard the Ocean Viking humanitarian ship sailing in the Mediterranean Sea, and Lindsay Whitehurst and Claire Galofaro in the U.S., tells the respective stories with a captivating clarity that resonated with readers and earned a rare tie in the Best of the Week contest. Each story demonstrated the profound storytelling power the AP can bring to complex stories with ingenuity, smart planning and teamwork.

Barcelona-based Brito wins for a story that she’s still living, and telling, from the Ocean Viking. Embedded with a ship that last week rescued 50 migrants fleeing violence in Africa, her dispatch, “Migrant escaping Libya torture: We will go to Europe or die,” showed in stark terms the journey that for many has ended in death.

Galofaro and Whitehurst, meanwhile, share the win with a very different but no-less-gripping tale: “The rise and fall of an Eagle Scout’s deadly fentanyl empire,” about a millennial who built a million-dollar empire of mail-order fentanyl-laced pills.

For packages that brought new insight and perspective to heavily covered stories with significant global impact, Brito, Galofaro and Whitehurst win AP’s Best of the Week honors.

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Sept. 20, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

AP: Virtually no regulation of contaminated sludge used as crop fertilizer

for an all-formats package that holds state and federal regulators accountable for doing little or nothing to address rising concerns that sewage sludge, used as cheap farm fertilizer, is contaminating food with potentially harmful chemicals. The team interviewed numerous experts and officials about PFAS, a group of chemicals used in a wide variety of household products and industrial processes. They found concern that certain of these chemicals associated with increased risk of cancer and organ damage could wind up in the food chain fertilized by contaminated sludge. But they also found that the federal government and most states had done little if anything to assess or regulate the amount of PFAS in the sludge being spread on farm fields across America.https://bit.ly/2kRjDiihttps://bit.ly/2mmYxc2https://bit.ly/2lXGo4f

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Aug. 30, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

Breaking news of top US prison official’s ouster after Epstein death

for breaking the news that the head of the long-troubled federal prison system was being removed in the wake of Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide. Balsamo had been pressing sources at the Justice Department about the fate of Hugh Hurwitz, the acting director of the Bureau of Prisons. Two guards and the warden had been disciplined, but nothing was said about the senior leadership. Balsamo worked up prep in case Hurwitz resigned or was fired.

Nine days after Epstein’s death, Balsamo heard from a source who had just met with Attorney General William Barr: Barr was going to remove Hurwitz. The decision was extremely sensitive; even Hurwitz didn't know yet. Balsamo had just a brief window to break the news before it became public, but because he had the prep in place, he was able to move quickly. AP had a 650-word story before any other outlet had even sent an alert. Hurwitz’s removal quickly became one of the top stories of the day, with Balsamo’s story receiving wide play, even by some news organizations with their own Justice Department reporters. https://bit.ly/2NBYC7k

Aug. 29, 2019

Best of the States

Early Epstein accuser: Police could have stopped him in 1997

It’s exceedingly rare to get any details from a police report in California and even rarer to get a glimpse inside a detective’s notebook. But Jennifer Peltz and Katie Campione did just that. Peltz and Campione convinced police to finally explain how they handled one of the earliest known sex crime accusations against Jeffrey Epstein, a 1997 case that the accuser has called a massive missed opportunity to bring the financier to justice years before he was accused of sexually abusing dozens of girls and young women.

Their story turned out to be one of the most popular stories of the week on the AP News mobile site and was also one of the most engaging with readers. Even the Los Angeles Times had no choice but to put the AP story on its website front page.

For going the extra mile to get an explanation for a case that could have stopped Epstein from the start, Katie Campione and Jennifer Peltz win this week's Best of the States.

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Aug. 23, 2019

Best of the States

Foresight, persistence, sources put AP ahead on green card restrictions for legal immigrants

Few reporters were paying attention to a draft rule barring legal immigrants from getting green cards if they received benefits like Medicaid or food stamps – but AP’s Colleen Long was.

Long, AP’s Washington-based Homeland Security reporter, had spent months asking U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services when the final rules would be published, making them official. With a heads-up from sources, she was eventually able to get an advance briefing and interview, writing the story just before heading off on vacation. Then, as soon as the rule appeared, she alerted the Washington desk to move the story, giving AP a major beat over other news organizations. By the time the White House and Homeland Security held briefings, Long already had all the key details on the wire.

For her skilled source-building, persistence and meticulous reporting, Long wins this week’s Best of the States honors.

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Aug. 23, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

AP breaks news of Epstein autopsy report

for their source work to break the news that Jeffrey Epstein’s death had officially been ruled a suicide by hanging. Sisak ensured AP would be at the top of the medical examiner’s call list by gently nudging the ME’s office daily, several times a day, about the release of the autopsy findings. Balsamo had put the AP on high alert earlier in the day when a source confirmed that federal investigators had been told to expect the medical examiner’s determination that afternoon. As a result, AP was one of just two news organizations to get the findings first, with AP putting out its alert followed by an updated story less than two minutes later. AP was widely attributed with news of the ruling on the air and in mobile push alerts. https://bit.ly/2TOH3BN

Aug. 16, 2019

Best of the Week

AP investigation: Guam’s ex-archbishop protected culture of clergy sex abuse of children

Knowledge of clergy sex abuse is widespread on the mainland of the United States. But it has long been a secret in the small, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic U.S. territory of Guam.

Washington-based investigative reporter Michael Biesecker, working with Atlanta-based enterprise photographer David Goldman and Seattle video journalist Manuel Valdes, helped to puncture that veil of silence when AP examined thousands of pages of court documents in lawsuits brought by abuse victims and then conducted extensive interviews.

The AP team detailed a pattern of repeated collusion among predator priests, with abuse that spanned generations and reached all the way to the top of the territory’s church hierarchy, ruled over by then-Archbishop Tony Apuron, who himself had been accused of the rape of a 13-year-old choir boy when Apuron was a parish priest.

The care and sensitivity of the reporting and images were essential to the project’s power. “To see my story told in this way gives me a lot of peace, that I have a purpose,” said Walter Denton, a former U.S. Army sergeant and survivor of abuse nearly 40 years ago.

For telling a sensitive and little-known story of systemic clerical abuse dating from the 1950s to as recently as 2013, Biesecker, Goldman and Valdes share AP’s Best of the Week award.

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Aug. 16, 2019

Beat of the Week

(Honorable Mention)

Reshaping of federal courts concerns gun control supporters

for a forward-looking piece amid the blizzard of gun-related news that followed the most recent mass shootings, looking at how the reshaping of the federal courts under President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate could undermine strict gun-control laws passed by Democratic-leaning states. That scenario is already playing out in California, where a Republican-appointed federal judge has blocked a state law limiting the number of rounds allowed in ammunition magazines. Thompson’s story, turned around in a day and a half in the wake of the latest shootings, resonated with readers and editors, scoring heavy play online and in print. https://bit.ly/2KDN1BC

July 26, 2019

Best of the Week

AP hours ahead as Trump moves to end nearly all asylum at southern border

Washington-based homeland security reporter Colleen Long earned a key scoop – one that set the news agenda for days and left the competition scrabbling to catch up – when a source alerted her to a change in rules for those seeking asylum at the southern border: The rule would effectively end asylum for people coming from Central American countries and change decades of U.S. policy.

Following the tip, she also knew that she had a window of opportunity to drive her advantage home before the law was announced early the next morning. Long’s story caught other news organizations completely off guard and left major outlets to cite the AP for hours as they struggled to catch up.

For her deep knowledge of immigration policy, diligent reporting and outstanding speed of delivery on a story of vital interest, Colleen Long earns AP’s Best of the Week.

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July 12, 2019

Best of the States

Only on AP: Big farms find easy ways around caps on tariff aid

An AP Best of States mention in February about the hundreds of companies avoiding President Donald Trump’s steel tariffs raised questions about Trump’s $12 billion aid package to farmers hurt by the tariffs. What happened next shows how states can produce sharp, data-driven journalism – simply by calling on the data team for help.

AP filed Freedom of Information Act requests for U.S. Department of Agriculture data that was analyzed by Balint Szalai, a Hungarian investigative reporter embedded with AP’s data team, and Washington data team intern Riin Aljas.

Among their findings: Many big farming operations were legally collecting far more than the supposed caps on aid.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis reporter Steve Karnowski spoke to longtime USDA critics and interviewed farmers who defended taking the big checks, saying they didn’t even cover their losses under Trump’s trade war.

The Only-on-AP story ran on dozens of sites, and because the data and analysis were released to AP members in advance, many chose to localize their stories.

For sophisticated data analysis and on-the-ground reporting that shed light on a key consequences of trade policy, Karnowski, Szalai and Aljas share this week’s Best of the States award.

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June 28, 2019

Best of the States

AP Analysis: EPA data says US air quality is slipping; EPA regulation could make it worse

Washington science writer Seth Borenstein knew the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was not going to notify anyone when it posted new data on the nation’s air quality for 2018, but he knew where it would be posted. He also knew that the Trump administration was poised to replace an Obama-era clean-air rule with a new regulation that was friendlier to coal-fired power plants, so he kept checking for the agency’s data.

When the data finally showed up, Borenstein teamed with New York-based Health and Science data journalist Nicky Forster to evaluate the data, put it in context and run it by scientists. Forster even pointed out errors that the EPA was forced to correct.

Their persistence made AP the first to report that the annual number of days of poor air quality in the U.S. had increased for the second year in a row, after decades of improvement. The story ran on the eve of the EPA’s announcement of its loosened regulation, undermining the rationale for the new standards with the government’s own numbers. Trump’s new rule, experts told the AP, could turn what is so far a modest backslide into a deadly trend.

For diligent reporting and sophisticated analysis to hold a federal agency accountable for its data and regulatory policy, Borenstein and Forster earn this week’s Best of the States award.

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