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Searing photo of migrant drownings launches all-formats AP coverage across borders

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When New York photo editor Pablo Salinas alerted colleagues to the image of a drowned father and daughter from El Salvador lying face-down in the Rio Grande after they tried to cross into Texas, it was clear it captured, like few other images, the dangers faced by migrants and asylum-seekers trying to make it to the United States.

AP’s much-applauded decision to acquire and publish that image, showing the stark and often-hidden reality of migrants dying by the hundreds each year along the U.S. border, showcased AP’s significant role in shaping the news agenda.

It also stands as a lesson for AP staff with several important takeaways, highlighting the role of editors to find, gather and acquire important images for AP’s global audience, the role of AP’s Top Stories Hub to coordinate and amplify news stories, and the value of rapid response by journalists in the region to verify, report and provide context for any news-making picture.

Finally, it showed how the thoughtful implementation of AP’s standards across all platforms and social media can allow AP to stand out.

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Freelance journalist Julia Le Duc poses, June 26, 2019, on the banks of the Rio Grande where she made photos of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, both lying face down, drowned while trying to cross the river into the U.S. – AP Photo / Rebecca Blackwell

It all started when Salinas first spotted the arresting image taken by freelance reporter Julia Le Duc on the website of La Jornada, the Mexican newspaper that originally published it. A Salvadoran man, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez – frustrated because the family was unable to present themselves to U.S. authorities and request asylum – attempted to swim his family across the river on Sunday, June 23, with his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria. Father and daughter were caught by the strong current, their bodies found the next day. Le Duc’s photo showed them face down in the water along a grassy riverbank, his black shirt hiked to his chest and the tiny girl tucked inside. Her slender arm lay draped over his neck, suggesting they clung to each other in their final moments.

Salinas pointed out the photo to Alyssa Goodman, a top stories photo specialist, who brought it to attention of Director of Photography David Ake. Ake knew that there was still an important standards discussion to be had among senior managers about publishing it, but he asked Goodman to pursue licensing immediately.

Goodman contacted the AP’s regional photo desk in Mexico City to reach out to La Jornada, where the editor promised to share it the following day once the paper had run it in print. Eduardo Verdugo, chief photographer for Mexico and Central America, persuaded La Jornada to send it to him that same day just to have it ready, and to provide it to AP exclusively. He also got contact information for Le Duc, then he, along with Mexico City photographer Rebecca Blackwell and senior video producer Alexis Triboulard, asked her for rights to other photographs as well as video images.

In New York,Managing Editor Brian Carovillano and Vice President for Standards John Daniszewski conferred Tuesday morning on the image with photo leaders,Goodman and top stories director Paul Haven. They agreed that it was a valuable and moving image with high newsworthiness,and that the AP needed to not just run the photo but make it the centerpiece of strong all-format coverage. The photo was the story,and we needed text and video coverage around it that explained how the migrants’ bodies got there. AP decided the photo and story would appear on AP’s own public-facing platforms, apnews.com and the AP mobile app.

For members and customers,the image was sent “online-out,” meaning editors of those organizations could decide individually whether to publish it.

AP also considered how to handle the photo on social media,deciding not to publish it directly on Facebook but opting to move the image on Twitter,a place where people deliberately go for open debate and even sharp elbows. Unlike Facebook,Twitter does not provide a way to de-emphasize or black out a sensitive photo.

At the time of the standards discussion,Haven went to work encouraging his top stories desk and Latin America to dig into reporting about it vigorously – who the victims were, how they died and the context around their deaths. The story accompanying the image increased its power. Peter Orsi,acting news director for Mexico and Central America,anchored the text story from Mexico City with contributions from the field.

In San Martin,El Salvador,the all-formats crew of correspondent Marcos Alemán, David Barraza and Salvador Melendez tracked down the drowned man’s mother the day the photograph was published and confirmed details of how he and the girl died, including that she had thrown herself in the water and they were swept away by the current when he tried to save her. They also covered Martínez’s widow as she returned to El Salvador from Mexico, and produced a profile of Altavista, the humble bedroom community in San Martin where Martínez and his daughter lived.

In Matamoros,Blackwell and Mexico City colleagues,reporter Chris Sherman and videographer Gerardo Carrillo,interviewed immigration officials and migrants camped out at the river who have been waiting months in some cases to claim asylum – including a woman who had met the family hours before the ill-fated crossing and described them as “scared,” with “panic on their faces.” The team also staked out the funeral home where they captured images of the widow and the bodies being loaded for transport overland and ultimately back home to El Salvador.

The impact of the photo and story would be hard to overstate. The initial photos generated some 1,800 downloads,while the video scored more than 1,000. The story of the drownings generated more than 500,000 pageviews within 24 hours.

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From Pope Francis to Democratic presidential candidates during the debate,expressions of sadness and outrage were swift. The New York Times ran the photo prominently on the front page of its print edition, following up with a story about why it decided to publish it. (AP also distributed its own explanation in a blog.)

There was some scattered criticism of AP’s decision to distribute the picture. It was not however shared by Martínez’s grieving mother,who felt it showed her son in a positive light.

“It fills me with tenderness,” Rosa Ramírez said of the photo. “You can see how he protected her,” she continued. “They died in each other’s arms.”

For an outstanding multinational effort in finding,recognizing and acquiring Le Duc’s tragic and important image,and presenting it to AP’s worldwide audience with context and sensitivity,Salinas,Alemán,Verdugo,Blackwell,Sherman, Carrillo and Orsi share AP’s Best of the Week award.

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