It was the answer to the question everyone was asking, about the biggest story in the world. Just how many children had been separated from their parents at the U.S. border as a result of the Trump administration’s new zero-tolerance immigration policy?
Colleen Long, newly arrived on her Washington beat, got the hugely important scoop, beating all of her seasoned competitors with that very number: nearly 2,000.
Long had just moved to the nation’s capital after more than a decade covering law enforcement in New York, assigned to the Department of Homeland Security. She went right to work grilling sources – anybody she could find. “I was meeting people left and right for coffee, drinks, whatever I could do,” she says. “I talked to new people, veteran people, retired people, all kinds of people, and this was my talking point. I was just trying to get a sense for what was happening with this. The one thing I kept asking people was, ‘How many kids is this going to affect? What does this look like?’ I asked everyone I could think of.”
“The one thing I kept asking people was, ‘How many kids is this going to affect? What does this look like?’ I asked everyone I could think of.”
After speaking to some two dozen people, Long hit pay dirt. A source called and said, “I'm going to give you a big scoop.”
“Great!” Long responded, not really thinking she would get the number. But the information put AP more than an hour ahead with the news that, at that point, nearly 2,000 children had been forcibly removed from their families at the border over a six-week period, during a crackdown on illegal entries.
The DHS figures showed that 1,995 minors had been separated from 1,940 adults from April 19 through May 31. The separations were not broken down by age, and included separations for illegal entry, immigration violations or possible criminal conduct by an adult.
Long’s competitors – including reporters who have been covering the beat for years – had to wait for the numbers to be released on a conference call later in the day. The lesson: Long made a priority of diving right into the world’s top story and was not afraid to press sources in high positions for information. She used the key question, she says, as “a tool ... to help understand how this whole thing was working, and an excuse to talk to people.”
For determined, aggressive reporting that yielded a huge payoff, Long wins the Beat of the Week award.