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Source work breaks news of surge in US military sexual assault

FILE - The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view made through an airplane window in Washington, Jan. 26, 2020. Reports of sexual assaults across the U.S. military jumped by 13% last year, driven by significant increases in the Army and the Navy as bases began to move out of pandemic restrictions and public venues opened back up. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

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Few reporters have broken as many stories on issues affecting the lives of U.S. service members as Lolita Baldor, AP’s longtime military affairs reporter. In particular, she’s covered the issue of sexual assault in the military for a decade.

Hearing that the Pentagon would soon release its annual report on the issue, she tapped into her deep network of sources to score a major scoop a full day ahead of the official announcement: Sexual assaults in the military had increased by 13% last year, with the Army reporting a stunning 26% increase.

Baldor had started asking about the report weeks earlier, casting a wide net for people with some sense of where each service ranked and what the numbers were. She chipped away at it, relying on the fact that as the report’s release approached, more people would be briefed and sources in services that performed better would be more willing to provide numbers — and they might well tell her who had performed poorly.

Eventually she had about 8-10 sources with elements of the report,and she knew that the Army numbers would be bad after previously speaking with senior Army leaders.

Then,a longtime source leaked all 26 pages of Pentagon talking points,which had virtually everything she needed. With that in hand,when the Department of Defense offered to talk on background — on the condition her story be embargoed until just before the release — Baldor was able to turn it down. But she still wanted to hear the broad assessment of why the numbers were so bad.

Knowing the story was competitive,she held off just long enough to meet with a senior person on deep background to go through all the numbers. At that point her story moved,a day before the official announcement and ahead of all other news organizations, many of which used the AP story or cited AP in their own reporting.

Not content with breaking the story,the following day,as the Pentagon officially announced the numbers and other journalists played catch-up, Baldor kept the AP out front with a smart follow-up piece on the military’s struggles to come up with effective programs to deter sexual assaults.

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