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Truth and Evidence

Two Goldman Alumni at the Associated Press

In 2016, the Associated Press was awarded its 52nd Pulitzer Prize for a riveting investigative report about slavery in the Thai fishing industry. The story — the work of an international group of AP reporters, photographers, and editors — drew worldwide attention and eventually led to the release of 2,000 enslaved men. 

“That story was the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ for those men,” says AP CEO Gary Pruitt (MPP ’81/JD ’82). “I happened to be in Bangkok when those articles were published,” he recalls. “The Prime Minister of Thailand said that the people who had reported this news should be executed. [We] ignored him.”

Since becoming CEO of AP in 2012, Gary has overseen the establishment of a bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea, testified to protect reporters’ sources from US Justice Department subpoenas, and helped steer the 170-year old organization through a journalism landscape that is changing at a breathtaking pace. 

The key in all this, says Gary, is for AP to stay true to its core mission. 

“AP strives to be objective and its focus is fact-based journalism,” he says. “News is our truth north.”

Gary became CEO of the Associated Press in 2012. Prior to that, he was the head of the McClatchy Company, which operates 29 newspapers across the country. He traces his interest in journalism to his time in policy and law school where he focused on constitutional — especially first amendment — law. 

Each day, the AP produces approximately 2000 text stories, 3000–4000 photos, 150 news videos and three live feeds of news from around the world. 

“AP reaches over half the world's population each day,” he says, “mostly through other media [which licenses content]. It's the most comprehensive news report in the world and that's every day, 365 days a year.”

One such story reported in the spring of 2016 was about American school districts that were blocking the enrollment of young migrants who had come to the US to flee the violence of their Central American homes. (http://apne.ws/2mndc4s). The reporter behind that story was Garance Burke (JS ’04/MPP ’05).

“It took over 400 days to turn up the documents that shed light on what was happening to those kids,” she recalls

Garance has been with AP since graduating from the Goldman School and part of AP’s national investigative team since 2014. Her reporting has ranged from water rights and air pollution to immigration and presidential campaigns. 

Garance’s reporting sometimes demands extensive and often-lengthy investigation, like the migrant youth story or the story she reported about Donald Trump’s behavior on the set of The Apprentice that subsequently led to the discovery of the Access Hollywood “hot mic” tapes. Other stories turn around much more quickly — a matter of a background check, as in the story about Donald Trump’s expert on voter fraud being registered to vote in three states — or are sent to her, as in the case of a leaked draft proposal showing that the Department of Homeland Security once considered mobilizing the National Guard to round up unauthorized immigrants.

In a time when many local outlets have lost the resource to do investigative reporting, Garance notes that the AP has added to its investigative “fire power” in recent years. 

“I've certainly felt fortunate to be able to do this on a national stage and the global stage,” says Garance.

Challenges and Opportunities

Increased financial pressures and political polarization have created both challenges and opportunities for media organizations like the AP.

“The business model that supports news is changing,” says Gary. “Our customers are under pressure and we get the ripple effect of that, but we are diversifying. It helps that we're global and that 40% of our revenue is outside the United States.”

Financial pressures have also affected the capacity of many, especially local, news organizations to invest in investigative reporting. 

“AP strives to be objective and fact-based, but still in this climate, we are often attacked,” says Gary. “Our values remain clear and that is objective journalism. We're continuing to do our job without being intimidated but also without being provoked.”

Fact-Checking “Fake News”

In this provocative and polarized environment, AP is one of several news organizations that have teamed up with Facebook to fact-check “fake news” stories (see sidebar). 

“Facebook was very concerned about the fake news issue, especially coming out of the 2016 election. At the same time they didn't want to become editors or become involved in editorial decisions,” says Gary. “So they approached a handful of companies, including the AP, to assist.”

AP has access to a FB dashboard where it is able to view and fact-check stories that are both popular and have been tagged by users as potentially false. Once debunked, the fake news story is linked to the fact-checked article. If shared, the fact-checked story will accompany it.

“This is an important thing to do and at the same time we don't want to spend all our time debunking stories,” says Gary. “We have to gather news independently of this … [but AP’s been] fact-checking for decades, so it's within our sweet spot.”

GSPP Training

Though their roles at AP are quite different, both Garance and Gary draw upon their Goldman School training. 

“Being able to harness statistical research tools and well as other forms of quantitative analysis in the pursuit of truth has been invaluable to me,” says Garance. “Talking with Steve Raphael and Jack Glaser while I was at the School was really helpful in thinking critically about qualitative research, as well as being willing to consider the counterfactual.”

“John Ellwood was also an anchor in shaping my understanding of various different federal agencies … and their internal processes and logic. His level of expertise about the motivation of the different agencies…and their own processes for formulating policy was illuminating for me.”

She notes the importance of understanding the policy levers at play in any given issue, whether policing, community development or the regulation of the electricity markets. “The debates that I had with colleagues and professors at GSPP helped me form the questions that now guide my reporting.”

Gary similarly draws on GSPP’s signature analytical rigor. 

“Statistical analysis and microeconomic analysis, together with law, were particularly helpful,” he says. “David Kirp helped me know how to tease apart issues, objectively hone argumentation, and write clearly but with a sense of style.”

Despite the challenges facing the field, both Garance and Gary remain passionate about their work and hopeful about the future of journalism. 

“There's been such a debate about the role of media in recent days and where the industry is heading, but I really do see that the simple tracking of the record, policies, and character of our politicians, business people, and institutions has a major impact on our world,” says Garance. “People want accurate news they can depend on; our democracy really relies on the freedom of information and … fact-based debate to reach consensus. The more we can provide that the better off we all are.”

“The level of interest seems to be growing,” agrees Gary. “While business models may be in flux, there is a feeling that fact-based journalism can make a difference and … may be more important than ever.”