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Flawless source work, preparation deliver all-formats scoop on US-Russia prisoner swap

Joey and Paula Reed, parents of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Russian prisoner Trevor Reed, stand in Lafayette Park near the White House, March 30, 2022. Reed was released April 27 in a secretive, unexpected prisoner swap in Turkey, first reported by the AP. (AP Photo / Patrick Semansky)

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In a textbook display of outstanding source work and planning, Eric Tucker and Matthew Lee broke the news of a U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange that happened despite heightened tensions between the countries.

Tucker and Lee did more than score a massive scoop; they also showed the rewards of careful, long-term source-building, a model of how to prepare in all formats to put the AP ahead of the competition the moment the news broke, and examples of how to build on a big story with smart sidebars in-cycle and a compelling follow-up story that offered new, behind-the-scenes details.

National security reporter Tucker has carved out a niche in hostage and detainee matters,developing contacts with detainee families,government officials and others engaged on the issue. Lee,a longtime State Department reporter,has an extensive source network throughout the world of diplomacy.

Their scoop started with a cryptic yet specific tip to Tucker one week earlier from a source he has worked with for years: In the coming weeks,the source said,the U.S. government is going to trade Trevor Reed,a Marine veteran jailed in Russia,for Konstantin Yaroshenko,a Russian drug trafficker jailed in the U.S.. Tucker knew this would be a huge story, especially while ties between the U.S. and Russia have plummeted to post-Cold War lows over the war in Ukraine. The information was extraordinarily closely held — reporting any aspect of it ahead of time risked causing the deal to blow up. It also risked tipping off competitors that something might be in the works.

Tucker shared the news with Lee,but Lee’s initial inquiries were met with silence. Sources normally informed seemed unaware,leading Lee to suspect the tip was based on extremely classified information. Then,over the weekend of April 23-24,while Lee was on a reporting trip in Poland,he got word something would happen relatively soon. The timing was unclear but Lee messaged Tucker about it on Sunday. They continued their reporting and by Tuesday afternoon,they had the outlines of what was about to unfold. By Tuesday evening,they knew the approximate time of day the swap would take place and in which country.

Because of the sensitivity,the information still couldn’t be reported. But the pair shared the information with supervisors in Washington and colleagues in Russia so that everyone was prepared. Late Tuesday — well before the exchange — Tucker prepped an entire story,confirmed there was a photo ready and also did a video debrief, ensuring that AP could distribute the video to the world the moment the deal happened and the text story crossed the wire.

On Wednesday,Tucker and Lee arose before dawn and immediately started pinging sources. Finally,Lee got the green light that the exchange had taken place in Turkey,allowing AP to push out an alert and full story well before any Western media competitors were aware it had happened.

Photos and video also moved right away,and because the exchange happened exactly as AP had anticipated, the pre-recorded video did not have to be edited in any way. The initial story not only reported that the deal had taken place but included a U.S. government official’s explanation for why it made sense.

AP moved an alert and full story well before the media competition was aware the swap had happened.

But that story was just the start. Tucker updated the story later in the day after an interview with the Reed family, a relationship he’d cultivated for years. He also contributed to two sidebars that day: a look at Trevor Reed and his case and an explainer on what impact the swap might have on a separate case of jailed WNBA star Brittney Griner. And on Friday, Tucker took a more in-depth look at the events that led up to the swap.

For their exhaustive,comprehensive work to scoop everyone on the dramatic swap, Tucker and Lee share AP’s Best of the Week – First Winner honors.

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