Keeping I-Teams alive on TV

Investigative reporting on local television has always been endangered. It’s expensive and time-consuming to dig up stories that hold the powerful accountable. Now, the economic pressure on newsrooms has put I-Teams in even greater jeopardy. So how can investigative journalists convince their bosses to let them keep doing what they do best?

“The way to stay employed is by becoming invaluable in your newsroom,” says veteran WLS-TV reporter Chuck Goudie (left). “You want to be the go to person in your newsroom, the first name that comes to mind when they need information. You shouldn’t have to be called. You should be on the phone getting information or telling your assignment desk what you know.”

WBAL-TV’s Jayne Miller agrees. “If you want to stay relevant, the number one goal is to break news,” she told the  Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference in Baltimore last weekend.  To do that,  you need sources you can reach at any time. “Measure your value by how many contacts you have in your phone,” Miller says. “What makes you unique are the human sources you have.”

Goudie has made himself relevant by becoming a franchise at his station. Every Wednesday night, he’s on the air at 10 with a segment that is heavily promoted. But he also files Web exclusive stories just about every day–stories that won’t make it onto any newscast, like developments in a criminal trial. “In many cases, a good news story isn’t necessarily a good TV news story but you want to have your name on it,” Goudie says. “Eyeballs will come to it. Trust me.”

Investigative journalists also use the Web to provide more information than they could possibly fit into a TV story. Chris Halsne of KIRO-TV in  Seattle says his Web team appreciates the I-Team’s ability to bring fresh content to the site. And whenever a story is posted online, Halsne says, he gets emails and tips for future stories.

The bottom line is that TV investigative reporting today is much more than just long-term projects that air during sweeps. As Miller puts it,” investigative reporting is the answer to the why,” and it doesn’t always take months to figure out.

Award-winning investigations

Three local TV stations have won prestigious Peabody Awards for the kind of in-depth reporting many stations no longer seem to value.  In an era of budget cuts and layoffs, WWL in New Orleans, KMGH in Denver and KLAS in Las Vegas devoted substantial time to covering significant local stories and they deserve credit for doing it.

WWL was cited for uncovering possible corruption and mismanagement by a city agency; KMGH was honored for a year-long investigation into the failure of county social welfare agencies to protect children; and KLAS won for an in-depth report on city efforts to tap into rural groundwater.

These stories weren’t easy to tell on TV and they weren’t quick turns.  That sets them apart from a lot of what masquerades as “investigative” reporting on local TV news these days, as noted in this AJR column.

Consultant Tom Dolan disputes my conclusion that I-Teams doing serious stories  are becoming endangered. He’s a proponent of what he calls “topical investigations” and says many of his clients are not backing off from investigative reporting.

Fair enough.  I stand by my view that some stories promoted as “investigative” really aren’t, but that’s not to suggest that local TV stations aren’t doing any good work. Thankfully, the winning Peabody entries prove otherwise.

The Web changes crime & coverage

Crime reporting is a staple of local news, so it’s important for journalists to provide context for their stories. At the 4th Annual Guggenheim Conference on Crime in Society, dozens of criminal justice reporters, criminologists and representatives of law enforcement gathered to talk about new research, policies and trends affecting criminal justice and the coverage of the system.

In a session on the impact of the Web in this arena, Doug Salane from the Center on  Cybercrime Studies at John College of Criminal Justice said that he continues to see more traditional crimes moving into the online world as computers and the Internet make things easier for criminals.

“For example, the “pump and dump” scheme to artificially raise the price of a stock – a botnet can send millions of emails about a stock for a very low price,” Salane said. Those emails encourage investors to buy a stock, which would pump up the price and allow the criminal to dump his own stock for big profit.

He also talked about a change in the way journalists need to look at hacking. “Hacking was individuals in the past, trying to prove something. Hacking is now more of an organized activity, largely emanating from outside the U.S., which makes it much harder to address, and the motive for most hacking is now profit.”

Salane discussed “carding sites” – Web sites, often based in Asia, that will sell all sorts of information about individuals for 80-cents an identity.

“This underground economy is growing at an alarming rate,” Salane said.

So, how does a journalist keep up with this growing form of crime? Salane points to the Internet Security Threat Report, which tracks the latest in Internet-based crimes.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics tracks identity theft, in particular, and will be issuing a new report in the fall of 2009.

Confrontational interviews

Investigative reporters often have to interview people who don’t really want to talk.  In a courtroom, they might be described as hostile witnesses. For journalists, especially in television, these kinds of interviews require a lot of preparation or choreography, as my former CNN colleague Mark Feldstein puts it.

The dirty little secret of TV muckraking is that, all posturing to the contrary, interviewing is not really about getting a target’s side of the story; it’s about convicting him in the court of public opinion. Mainstream news reporters may cling to the fiction of objectivity, but hardened investigative reporters suffer no such delusions.

Writing in American Journalism Review and using the new movie Frost/Nixon as a jumping off point, Feldstein offers a “how-to” primer for confrontational interviews that includes these suggestions:

  • Take charge immediately – [By] interrupting self-serving filibusters and carefully avoiding pleasantries that might weaken the necessary resolve to go for the jugular.
  • Go for the tight shot – Arrange in advance to have the videographer zoom in slowly on the interviewee’s face when the exchange grows heated. This cinematic effect visually reinforces the editorial goal of zeroing in on the quarry.
  • Use props – As every good trial lawyer knows, such tangible exhibits – video, photos, documents – not only help buttress a cross-examination but also add theatrical flair.
  • Set up targets to lie – You can’t force them to do so, of course, but it is always better to give them the opportunity to tell a falsehood on-camera before (not after) you pull out the smoking-gun memo that proves their culpability. A single lie captured on-camera shakes the edifice of everything else they say afterwards.
  • Always keep one camera rolling no matter what – That way, if your subject rips off his microphone or storms out of the room, you have footage of his defensive tantrum. Also, interviewees may blurt out embarrassing comments during a lull when they think they are not being recorded.

Are any of these tactics unfair?  Not at all, Feldstein says.  “No more so than the carefully coached evasions, posturing, pontificating, stonewalling and outright lying that your target has perfected over a lifetime.”

A successful reporter’s approach

He’s won three Pulitzer prizes, writes a regular column for the New York Times, and his non-fiction books sell like crazy. Okay, so Tom Friedman isn’t your average reporter, but a profile in the New Yorker magazine offers some insight into what makes him so successful.

First of all, he genuinely likes people.  Friedman tells writer Ian Parker, “I’m always amazed by the number of journalists who hate people.”  Because he likes being around people, it seems, they respond in kind.

He liked to conduct group interviews that put him in the role of seminar leader, and put his interviewees into an unconscious competition to deliver lines that would be rewarded by the sound of laptop keys being struck

Second, he gives to get.  Parker notes that Friedman tends to ask a question by offering “a prepared riff.”

He pitched ideas to people, and people pitched back. “Come empty, you leave empty,” Friedman said to me one evening. “Come with a point of view, and you could come back with something original.”

Finally, he works fast.  Parker writes that Friedman got the idea for his book, “The World is Flat,” during a conversation with Nanadan Nilkani, the head of the software computer company Infosys.  The book was published just over a year later.  Nilkani says what he learned from Friedman was speed.

I realized, when you have a story to tell you can’t dither over it for years and years—you’re going to be obsolete. That’s why I often refer to him as an intellectual entrepreneur: entrepreneurs succeed because they get a business idea and then they move faster than the rest, they bring the product to market. He does the same in an intellectual sense.

Friedman’s approach won’t suit everyone, of course, but that final piece of advice is more critical now than ever: Move faster than the rest.

Data for digging deeper

The Los Angeles Times has quietly built a huge online resource that gives users the opportunity to explore information on their own.  The data desk holds the results of 38 projects and more than 730,000 records: databases, lists, maps and rankings, both local and national.

Most of the entries are under politics–from donor lists to election results.  Others are hyperlocal–LA’s dirtiest pools and top dogs, for example.  But several might be worth replicating in other areas, perhaps as student projects.  A map of red light cameras, for instance, or the “where the boys/girls are” map based on census data.  One project you might just want to link to is a very cool “commute calculator” that figures out the annual cost of your daily drive.

(Thanks to Cyberjournalist.net for the tip.)

Network-local collaboration

CBS News has broken new ground both behind the scenes and on the air in collaborating with local TV journalists.  For the first time, the network enlisted the help of reporters at local affiliates in reporting an investigative story and featured those reporters on the CBS Evening News.

The story about gas pump rip-offs that aired on Friday included contributions from Mark Greenblatt of KHOU in Houston, Frank Vascellaro from WCCO-TV in Minneapolis and Anna Werner at KPIX in San Francisco.

Werner says CBS came up with the idea of doing the story in cooperation with the stations’ investigative units.

It was a great experience; I worked with senior producer Keith Summa, producer Pia Malbran, and of course Armen Keteyian, to put everything together.  They were extremely thorough in checking facts and figures and coming up with angles that worked in each particular market.

One key to the success of the project was that each station got a local package out of it, Werner says, “so that our time in the field and doing research was well spent at the local level as well.”

A cynic might say that CBS turned to its affiliates only because the network no longer has the staff to do this kind of investigation on its own.  But the networks have always used affiliate material; what’s different this time is that the local journalists actually got credit for their work and national exposure.  And the CBS package didn’t reduce the local reporters to sound bites–they played a major role in telling the story.