AP Editors Debated How To Release ‘Drug-Tainted Water’ Series

By: Joe Strupp

Associated Press editors knew today’s blockbuster series on drug-tainted drinking water would be a great scoop. But only if it was handled carefully, with news outlets given enough time to disseminate the information, but not so much time that the exclusive could be lost.

Editors admit they wrestled with the dilemma of releasing too much information in advance about the series or waiting too long and overwhelming AP members with the massive report all at once.

“We debated when to move it and felt it was unrealistic not to move it at all in advance,” said Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman. “But it is a very newsy series and we did not want to be moving it out 10 days in advance.”

AP sent editors the first advisory a week ago and actually began to distribute content from the three-day series on Wednesday, but with a firm embargo that none of the information be used prior to Monday morning print publications or late Sunday Web deadlines.

“We wrote [the advisory] on Monday in such a way that it didn?t give any of the key details,” Silverman added. “We wanted to promote it without giving too much away. We needed to balance between springing it on people and giving them enough advance notice to use it.”

AP also wanted to give news outlets a chance to localize the story in advance, which numerous papers including The Washington Post did. “But [no newspapers] broke it; they were very respectful of the embargo,” Silverman said.

The series, which included detailed research on the traces of pharmaceuticals found in dozens of sources of drinking water nationwide, also offered graphics, maps, and video related to the reporting.

The report, a five-month project involving three reporters, was the first major project from a new five-person AP national investigative unit formed in August and led by national investigative editor Richard Pienciak.

“That is the complexity of dealing with the Web and video and audio,” he said about the embargo debate. “It is a complicated question in today’s world and I think we ended up doing a good job.”

Pienciak said several television stations actually broke the embargo and placed parts of the report on their Web sites: “We called them and told them to take them down.” Silverman said the American Water Works Association tipped AP’s hand a bit with an advisory on Friday that alerted its Web users to a coming report about drug-tainted drinking water.

When the series broke late Sunday on Web sites and in today’s newspapers, AP was inundated with requests for interviews and other broadcast notices. “It is quite unusual in my experience,” said Silverman, a 37-year AP veteran. “The way this story has flashed in to the public consciousness is nothing like I have seen.”

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