April 19, 2019

Best of the States

FOIA checklist enables reporter to break news in case of missing boy’s impostor

Knowing what information can be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs) from various public agencies is critical to breaking news. And keeping a checklist of those information gold mines is key to accessing that knowledge, Columbus, Ohio-based reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins has found.

Welsh-Huggins used those skills to great effect in the case of the man accused of pulling a cruel hoax by pretending to be a long-missing Illinois boy. The story captured the nation’s attention and set reporters in motion trying to flesh out the background of a 23-year-old ex-con who Ohio authorities say faked being Timmothy Pitzen. Pitzen was 6 years old when he disappeared in 2011.

Welsh-Huggins’ checklist for enterprise off the news includes FOIAs to all agencies a suspect has had contact with. He filed a FOIA with the Ohio corrections department to obtain access to the disciplinary records of suspect Brian Rini, knowing from experience that the agency would release them.

A few days later the agency handed him 15 disciplinary reports showing that Rini was someone who liked to fabricate stories – including things as mundane as being short of toilet paper and as serious as being raped by a guard.

The AP was alone with the story, which got strong play in Ohio and across the country.

For using his knowledge of FOIA to break news on this highly competitive story, Welsh-Huggins wins this week’s Best of the States.

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March 08, 2019

Best of the Week

Disabled Walmart ‘greeters’ face job loss; AP coverage helps reverse corporate policy

In this week’s installment of Best of the Week, Pennsylvania correspondent Mike Rubinkam shows us how to translate a local story for a global audience, give it scope and reach, and in the process build a following for ongoing coverage.

Rubinkam, who covers northeastern Pennsylvania, was watching his local 6 p.m. newscast when a story caught his eye: A beloved, longtime Walmart greeter with cerebral palsy had been told that his position was being eliminated in favor of a new “customer host” position.

His interest piqued, the next morning Rubinkam interviewed the man, Adam Catlin, for his first story. That got a lot of attention on social media, but it was only the start.

Rubinkam followed up with three more stories, updating the public about Catlin’s talks with Walmart and interviewing greeters across the country. He also obtained photos of several greeters in their Walmart vests.

With each update, the story’s reach grew, with hundreds of online uses by AP customers and significant engagement on social media. And Walmart was listening. After a week of Rubinkam’s coverage, the mega-retailer announced it would make every effort to keep greeters with disabilities.

The story was a classic example of the impact that the AP’s footprint can have, bringing attention to an issue that surfaced locally but had not yet received national attention. The outcome was a change in corporate policy at one of the world’s biggest companies.

Because of his smart, dogged and curious reporting, and for capitalizing on the AP’s global reach, Rubinkam earns AP’s Best of the Week award.

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Dec. 07, 2018

Best of the States

Only on AP: Many of those ‘missing’ after wildfire are just fine

As the AP reported on the chaos and confusion surrounding the ever-changing list of missing people in the wake of California wildfire that killed at least 85 people, our reporters set out to try to track down more of those people and to show that they were findable, even though they continued to appear on the list of missing, and to show that hundreds were likely not really missing at all.

Dixie Singh, No. 158 on the list, was surprised to get a call from the AP, saying she was “very much alive,” and all her friends and family knew it. San Francisco reporter Jocelyn Gecker tracked her down through a public records search by AP News and Information Center researcher Jennifer Farrar.

Meanwhile, Sacramento correspondent Kathleen Ronayne and Washington, D.C., reporter Juliet Linderman, who was in town for the week assisting on fire coverage, tracked down other stories of people who were findable – just not by the sheriff’s department.

The team’s research and reporting laid out how easy it was to find some of the people and highlighted lapses in the sheriff’s record-keeping.

For their collaborative exclusive on a key lingering aspect of the deadly Camp Fire, the team of Gecker, Ronayne, Linderman and Farrar wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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Nov. 09, 2018

Best of the Week

‘They are human beings’: AP produces deep worldwide count of missing, dead migrants

The idea was bold from its inception: Attempting to count dead and missing migrants worldwide.

After covering the outflow of refugees in the wake of the Islamic State's takeover in parts of Iraq last year, Paris enterprise writer Lori Hinnant noticed a lack of data on the migration. She set off on a mission to count the uncountable.

The yearlong effort to document lives that would otherwise go unnoticed proved extremely challenging, precisely because it was plowing such new ground. An AP team of more than a dozen people painstakingly compiled information that had never been put together before from international groups, forensic records, missing persons reports and death records, and went through data from thousands of interviews with migrants. The data came alive with individual stories of migrants, a challenge in itself.

The AP project found 56,800 dead and missing migrants since 2014, almost double the number currently put out by the United Nations, which focuses heavily on Europe and nearly excludes several other areas of the world. The report drew significant interest, despite the fact that it ran six days before the U.S. midterm elections.

For their ambitious project that established AP as a global authority on this issue, Hinnant, Istanbul visual journalist Bram Janssen and Cairo photographer Nariman El-Mofty share the Best of the Week award.

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Sept. 14, 2018

Best of the States

#NotInvisible: Why are Native American women vanishing, dying?

It’s a subject that has been largely ignored by the public and mainstream press in the U.S.: the plight of thousands of missing and murdered Native American women across the country.

Albuquerque reporter Mary Hudetz and national enterprise journalists Sharon Cohen and David Goldman teamed up to deliver an impressive all-formats package that illuminated these tragedies, engaging readers on one of the busiest news days in recent memory and earning praise from the industry.

For their efforts, Hudetz, Goldman and Cohen win this week’s Best of the States award.

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Feb. 09, 2018

Best of the States

APNewsBreak: Man charged with selling armor-piercing bullets to Las Vegas shooter

In the days after the Las Vegas shooting that killed 58 people, authorities said gunman Stephen Paddock acted alone. But search warrants showed that police and the FBI were looking at two "persons of interest."

One was Paddock's girlfriend, whom police had cleared, and the other was a man named Douglas Haig of Arizona.

Haig talked to various media, including the AP, and held a news conference characterizing his sale of tracer ammunition to Paddock as a lawful transaction.

But Phoenix newsman Jacques Billeaud wasn’t convinced. He called a source he has cultivated in law enforcement who was willing to help but didn’t know the answer to Billeaud’s questions. Then, a few days later, the official called to say that Haig indeed had been charged with a crime. Billeaud quickly checked an electronic court records system and found that armor-piercing ammunition with Haig's fingerprints had been found in Paddock's hotel room. Haig was charged with illegally manufacturing and selling the ammunition.

Billeaud's relationship with his source put the AP ahead, and customers used the AP as first word on a competitive story. For sticking with the story and using long-term source work to break news, Billeaud will receive this week’s Best of the States prize.

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