Newswriting 101: deconstructing an AP story

Sloppy editing in this AP story helps perpetuate the myth of “media out to get the president.” And does the republic no favors in the process.

Sloppy reporting does the republic no favors.

There’s plenty of fodder for teeth gnashing in DC, but what set mine on edge today was how the Associated Press reported on a list of possible FBI directors. Moreover, this AP story (pdf) which I encountered about an hour after it went live on the AP website, provides fodder for anyone who thinks that “the press” is “out to get” the president.

James R. Clapper Jr. has served director of various national intelligence agencies under Presidents George H.W. Bush (1991-1995), George Bush (2001-2006) and Barack Obama (2007-2017). He spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper on Sunday. You won’t learn his full name, anything about his bi-partisan service, or where he made his comments in the AP story.

I have marked it up as I would have had it been turned in as a college class assignment.

There are no links in the AP story. None. I don’t know if this is a fault of the AP content management system, the reporter, or the editor. But it does the reader — as well as the Associated Press and the news organizations obliquely referenced — a disservice.

What do you think? Am I too harsh? Not harsh enough?

Clapper: US govt ‘under assault’ by Trump after Comey firing

WASHINGTON (AP) — American democracy is separately “under assault” from President Donald Trump and Russia, the former U.S. intelligence chief warned Sunday, expressing dismay over the abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey amid a probe into Moscow’s meddling in U.S. elections and possible ties with the Trump campaign.
Who? The lede requires that the reader know and hold the headline in her head. And the sentence is far too long: almost 50 words. That’s a long breath.
As Trump works to fast-track Comey’s successor, lawmakers from both parties urged him to steer clear of any politicians for the job and say he must “clean up the mess that he mostly created.”
Which lawmakers? Whose words are in quotes? Links are your friend.
“I think, in many ways, our institutions are under assault, both externally — and that’s the big news here, is the Russian interference in our election system,” said James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence. “I think as well our institutions are under assault internally.”
When? Under what president? What has he done since? What is James Clapper’s full name?
When he was asked, “Internally, from the president?” Clapper said, “Exactly.”
When? Where? By whom? Passive tense.
Clapper spoke following Trump’s sudden firing of Comey last week, which drew sharp criticism because it came amid the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. Clapper said America’s founding fathers had created three co-equal branches of government with checks and balances, but with Trump as president, that was now under assault and “eroding.”
When? Where? Trump fired Comey on Tuesday. Today is Sunday. Context needed.
The White House had no immediate comment on Clapper’s remarks on a morning in which no White House aide appeared on the Sunday news shows to discuss Trump’s firing.
Who said? How do you know? But UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was on the same CNN show as Clapper. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared on NBC.
Lawmakers from both parties reprimanded Trump’s actions last week, which included shifting explanations from the White House for Comey’s dismissal and an ominous tweet by Trump that warned Comey against leaks to the press because he may have “tapes” of their conversations. The lawmakers urged Trump to select a new FBI director without any political background and said the president would need to hand over to Congress any taped conversations with Comey, if they exist.
Sweeping generalization. Only three are quoted in this story. Links are your friend.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said promoting an FBI agent to lead the agency would allow the nation to “reset.” He dismissed as less desirable at least two of the 14 candidates under consideration by Trump, former Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, explaining that “these are not normal circumstances.”

Standard protocol is to include state information, either as narrative or in parens: (S.C.) This is particularly important if the Senator is going to be referenced later by his state, as in this story. Also, tell us when/where/to whom Graham said this. Putting that information in the last graph of a story this long (20+ paragraphs) is not sufficient.

Rogers, an ex-FBI agent and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has drawn the backing of the FBI Agents Association. Cornyn is the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.
Organizations don’t speak. People do. Who says?
“It’s now time to pick somebody who comes from within the ranks, or has such a reputation that has no political background at all that can go into the job on Day 1,” the South Carolina Republican said. Asked whether it was the right time to have someone such as Rogers or Cornyn, Graham flatly said, “no.”
Graham has not been IDed as a South Carolina senator. Who asked the question?
“The president has a chance to clean up the mess he mostly created,” Graham said, adding, “I have no evidence that the president colluded with the Russians at all … but we don’t know all the evidence yet.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the new FBI director should certainly be someone “not of partisan background” with “great experience” and “courage.” He left open the possibility that Democrats might try and withdraw support for a new FBI director unless the Justice Department names a special prosecutor. Under rules of the Senate, Republicans could still confirm an FBI director with 51 votes. Republicans hold 52 seats in the chamber to Democrats’ 48.
Same points as above regarding when/where/to whom
Calling Trump’s remarks about possible taped conversations “outrageous,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said his panel or another congressional committee would “absolutely” subpoena the tapes.
Same points as above regarding when/where/to whom
“We have got to make sure that these tapes, if they exist, don’t mysteriously disappear,” he said.
This would be an appropriate time to reference Watergate.
Warner also said he hopes to have Comey testify in a public hearing before his committee. Comey earlier declined an invitation this week to testify in a closed hearing.
Links are your friend and answer the “who said” comment that this sentence generates.
Less than a week after Trump fired Comey, the administration has interviewed at least eight candidates to be FBI director, and Trump has said a decision could come before he leaves Friday on his first overseas trip as president.
Who said?
Trump abruptly fired Comey on Tuesday and later said Comey was a “showboat” and “grandstander” who was not doing a good job, drawing a firestorm of criticism. Trump said in an interview with NBC that the Russia investigation factored into his decision to fire Comey. The changing rationales the White House offered added an element of chaos to the president’s action.
Links are your friend. When did he say the words in quotes? Link to NBC interview (when? with whom?) Link to changing rationales. Who said there is “chaos”?
The FBI director serves a 10-year term but can be replaced by the president.
So far 14 people — lawmakers, attorneys and law enforcement officials among them — have emerged as candidates. Eight met at the Justice Department on Saturday with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
Who says?
The first candidate to arrive for interviews was Alice Fisher, a high-ranking Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration.
Who says?
Also interviewed were:
Who says? Also, best practice is no colon as this is constructed. Add “the following” and then use the colon.
—Adam Lee, special agent in charge of the FBI’s office in Richmond, Virginia.
— Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director.
—Michael J. Garcia, a former prosecutor and associate judge on New York’s highest court.
—Cornyn, a former Texas attorney general.
—U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, a Bush appointee who struck down the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s health care law in 2010.
—Frances Townsend, a former Bush homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.
—Rogers. The FBI Agents Association says it believes his diverse background makes him the best choice.
Organizations don’t speak. People do. Who says?
Sessions has faced questions over whether his involvement in Comey’s firing violates his pledge to recuse himself from investigations into Russian interference in the election.
Who has asked questions? When did he recuse himself? Links are your friend.
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said Sessions and Rosenstein were involved in the interviews because the FBI director reports to them as attorney general and deputy attorney general.
She said this when? Where? To whom? And this explanatory paragraph fits more appropriately above, where Sessions and Rosenstein were first mentioned. 
Clapper and Schumer made their comments on CNN’s “State of the Union”; Graham spoke on NBC’s “Meet the Press”; and Warner appeared on ABC’s “This Week” and “Fox News Sunday.”
Tucking this in at the end of the story is lazy sourcing.
Associated Press writers Sadie Gurman and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

The AP story is copyrighted; this is an educational “fair use” instance. Featured image: Flickr CC

Addendum: I started writing as 12:42 pm Pacific, three hours ago. At that time, AP said the story was one hour old. AP still shows the news story as being published “one hour ago”. It is the lead politics story, which says it was published two hours ago.

Top politics news screen grab at 3:40 pm Pacific. I saw the story on the AP website at about 12:30 pm Pacific; at that time, the time stamp on the story said it had been published an hour earlier.


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

4 replies on “Newswriting 101: deconstructing an AP story”

Kathy, I love most everything of yours I have read. Disagree with some, but do we have the time to educate all the “journalist” or have the faith to trust the self appointed media police? It would be so much better to educate the readers and they would set the bar for information sharing.

Hi, Bill — thank you. I’d forgotten about this soapbox essay.

Although I agree with you that media literacy is needed, I also understand that for many Americans — there is little discretionary time (especially so for families with children).

In this example, the problem was not the reporter so much as it was the copy editor. :-(

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.