AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

Local News Stories That Made A Difference

TVNewsCheck is occasionally featuring examples of exceptional TV station reporting from across the country. Here are the first four, taking on everything from fraud, wasteful spending and public safety to a parking lot owner with a penchant for driving other people’s cars.

From time to time, I’ll be showcasing recent TV news stories that I think exemplify the first-rate journalism that is regularly produced at stations around the country.

Today, I have a story that could save your life — really — and three good investigative pieces on tax fraud, wasteful government spending and a parking lot owner with a penchant for taking customers’ cars for joy rides.

Let me know about other stories you believe are worth sharing by writing me at [email protected].

Tax Loophole Costs Billions (DMA 26)

Less than three weeks after it first aired, a WTHR Indianapolis investigation into a tax loophole that’s costing Americans billions has drawn more than 3 million online viewers — including members of Congress who have started debating the issue.

The report by Bob Segall — part of a team that has made the Dispatch Broadcast Group’s NBC affiliate a model for investigative news — shows how undocumented workers who file tax returns using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, versus a Social Security number, are able to get huge refunds from the IRS by claiming a $1,000 per child Additional Child Tax Credit for multiple children — some of who don’t even live in the U.S. or are not their own.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

The fraud is costing taxpayers $4 billion a year, according to Segall’s report. IRS tax code allows illegal immigrants to claim the tax credits as long as the children listed as dependents live in the U.S. and with the tax filer for at least six months a year. But the IRS does little to verify ITIN documentation, making it easy for the fraudulent claimants.

Says Segall: “A tax preparer came to us in February to blow the whistle on what he called a ‘shocking abuse’ of taxpayer dollars. What he told us sounded too ridiculous to be true. Turns out everything he told us was right.”

Watch the video here.

Parking Lot Owner’s Joyride (DMA 19)

Any fan of Ferris Bueller, especially the parking attendant who takes the Ferrari for a joyride, is going to love this one. Reporter Jeff Deal and the crew at WFTV, Cox’s ABC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., found that guy — in real life.

Thanks to a viewer’s tip — and with the help of photographer Octavio Torres, a GPS tracking device and a shiny red rented Corvette — Deal captured on video the owner of a parking lot used by cruise passengers driving the flashy car like his very own.

Only hours after the car was dropped off, Jose “Jay” Nieves raced the Corvette down dirt roads, snapped a photo of it and parked it at an Applebee’s. He even stopped at an Ace Hardware to load it up with lumber (a dog was in the car, too) as part of his 61 miles jaunt, all of which he denied doing on camera in the April 30 story.

The story got tremendous play, with versions of it airing on Good Morning America and World News with Diane Sawyer, as well as running in papers overseas.

“We really did have a lot of fun working on it,” says Deal, adding that the story was truly a team effort. In addition to Torres, the photographer, Operations Manager Dave Sirak helped out by coming up with the idea of using the GPS tracker.

The station chopper, which by chance was nearby covering a brushfire, was able to capture footage of Nieves driving the car as soon as the GPS sent its first text message alerting the crew that the Corvette was on the road.

“While we’re thrilled that it made for good television, most satisfying for us is that hopefully we’re keeping this from happening to anyone else who is taking a cruise out of Port Canaveral.”

At last report, it seemed the parking lot has closed down.

Watch the video here.

Cooking Fires: Do You Know What to Do? (DMA 15)

 If you don’t now, you undoubtedly will get your fire-stopping act in gear after watching the story on the subject that Boyd Huppert and a couple of photographers put together for KARE, Gannett’s NBC affiliate in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

After local resident Don Coleman recounts losing his 75-year-old mother to a stove-top grease fire, Huppert, photographers Jonathan Malat and Jeff Wiltgen, and a St. Paul Fire Department inspector show with tremendous effect how fast and furiously a grease fire can spread — primarily by starting one themselves and capturing it in video.

As Huppert explains, the team set up 10 cameras in the kitchen of a home slated for demolition before the fire inspector demonstrates the danger of throwing water on a grease fire, many people’s natural reaction in such a situation.

Huppert says what happened next made his jaw drop — and it will yours too.  A huge fireball shoots straight up out of the frying pan, travels across the ceiling and consumes the drapes on the opposite wall. Wiltgen captures it while lying on the kitchen floor.

The proper way to contain a grease fire is by covering it with a pot cover or cookie sheet. The story also recommends a mini-flame extinguisher you can hang above your stove.

With 40% of all Minnesota fires starting in the kitchen, Huppert says he is heartened by the response to this one, which already has been shown by schools and safety programs.

“We always say in these stories that you won’t believe this, or that this could save your life, and a lot of that is puffery,” he says. “But this is one time we could say that without any bluster at all.”

Watch the video here.

School Board Junket (DMA 21)

The cash-poor Cahokia School District in East St. Louis, Mo., is a financial mess that can’t even afford to fix up its rundown high school. But it somehow came up with $7,500 for board members to go to Boston to attend a national conference — arriving two days early to boot — despite nearly all the presentations being available online for free.

Craig Cheatham, a reporter at KMOV, Belo’s CBS affiliate in St. Louis, caught the three board members and two of their wives in Boston with a hidden camera. The crew even recorded a board member leaving a daylong session early, opting instead to hang out with her colleagues’ wives at the hotel.

When questioned, board president Peggy Shelton defended the trip, saying the conference offered education she and her colleagues could not get elsewhere. But as Dr. Garrett Duncan, an associate professor at Washington University who specializes in ethics in education, said when Cheatham told him that the same information was, in fact, available for free: “Wow.”

Watch the video here.

Read other Air Check columns here.


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