Neither Reese Dunklin nor Justin Pritchard had done much military reporting before they embarked on the investigation that wins this week’s Best of the States.
Last May, as they separately sifted through readers' email responses to the 2017 investigation into Schoolhouse Sex Assault, both reporters flagged the same messages for follow-up: The tips described problems with the handling of sex assaults reported on U.S. military bases among the children and teens of service members.
Through dozens of FOIA requests and interviews, they found that reports of sexual assaults and rapes among military kids were getting lost in a dead zone of justice, with neither victim nor offender receiving help. Cases often died on the desks of prosecutors, even when an attacker confessed. And criminal investigators shelved other cases, despite requirements they be pursued, the reporters found.
Using government records and data released by the Pentagon’s military branches and school system, Dunklin and Pritchard catalogued nearly 600 cases of sex assaults among children on military bases, often after protracted FOIA negotiations. Though an acknowledged undercount, it was the first such quantification – something neither the Pentagon nor its global school system had previously done.
Dunklin and Pritchard catalogued nearly 600 cases of sex assaults among children on military bases, often after protracted FOIA negotiations.
The initial story detailed systemic problems within both the Pentagon, its global system of K-12 schools, and the Justice Department. The reporters also decided with editor Maud Beelman to tailor NewsNows for 15 states where they had documented at least three cases since 2007. That approach helped front page treatment. Spurred by state-specific numbers, papers and TV stations with large bases in their coverage areas featured their own reporting. The second day's story focused on one gut-churning case in a Pentagon-run base school in Germany.
Stars & Stripes, the print and online newspaper read by generals and grunts alike, featured the first story on its front page more prominently than the U.S. secretary of state’s ouster, which occurred the same day, and followed up with A1 treatment of the second story the next day. AP’s own metrics showed unusually high levels of engagement that lasted days, gaining traffic through Facebook shares. Dunklin also traveled to Colorado to gather audio for AP’s collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal radio and podcast program, and both he and Pritchard were interviewed for shows that aired nationally.
The stories had immediate impact. Leaders on the Senate committees overseeing the military and education policy demanded answers from the Pentagon. Another senator asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate its handling of cases. The House Armed Services Committee began its own investigation, and one member promised a public hearing within six months.
For shedding light on a problem too long ignored, and localizing it for AP members in their states, Dunklin and Pritchard share this week’s $300 prize.