How to do just that was what many in the record crowd of journalists at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference were eager to learn. And they weren’t disappointed. Session participants say the strong interest among TV reporters reflects a widespread resurgence in watchdog and investigative journalism.
If one thing was evident at Investigative Reporters & Editors conference, it’s that the people who work in local TV — many in small and mid-sized markets — want to get investigative journalism right.
Broadcasters — reporters, producers and photographers — packed the how-to sessions offered at the four-day San Francisco confab that wrapped up Sunday,
Well-heeled station groups including NBC, Gannett, Scripps and Hearst sent scores of employees to the conference, which reported a record 1,600-plus attendees.
“This is one of the largest contingents of broadcast journalists we’ve ever had,” IRE Executive Director Mark Horvitz said, adding that the conference featured more broadcast-oriented panels than in the past.
Gannett alone sent 150 journalists to the event, using the occasion to get them together with some of the company’s top executives, including CEO Gracia Martore and broadcasting chief Dave Lougee.
Barbara Maushard, Hearst Television’s VP of news, said having news managers and reporters attend the conference is part of a larger relationship with IRE, which provides training for station news teams throughout the year.
“This is just one of the many things we do to make sure our news operations are focused on investigations that have impact in our communities,” she said.
Horvitz said the strong interest among TV reporters reflects a widespread resurgence in watchdog and enterprise journalism. IRE members are journalists who want to learn skills that set their stories apart from the pack, he said. “What you need to do is raise your game in everything you’re doing.”
Time and again, conference speakers voiced concerns facing local TV news teams: doing quality investigative work amid the daily grind; competing against larger stations or groups; keeping legal issues at bay; and establishing the role of local TV news in a world where anyone with a blog is considered a journalist.
WVUE New Orleans’ Lee Zurik and WFAA Dallas’ Brett Shipp led discussions on techniques reporters could use to improve their stories and passed along advice.
Zurik, for instance, stressed the importance of capturing sources’ natural reactions. Shipp, who covered and then followed the West, Texas, fertilizer plan explosion, said reporters need to stick with stories well after the news breaks to help make sure such tragedies don’t happen again.
“You make sure everybody knows why and how this happened, and you make sure that it gets changed.”
Perhaps the biggest hit of the conference was a session that offered broadcasters 60 ideas that could likely be adapted to most markets. Many of them covered hot-button issues — schools safety, fraudulent car sales, government waste and drunk driving laws.
Among the 60: KTRK Houston, on food stamp fraud; WOSC Charlotte, N.C., on hotel swimming pools that failed inspections; KOIN Portland, Ore., on carnival ride safety; KXAN Austin, on city departments with the most traffic accidents and how much they cost taxpayers; and KXAS Dallas, on nail salons failing to sterilize tools.
WFTV Orlando’s story on Florida’s most dangerous schools could easily be duplicated in other markets, panelists said. Researching the story involves breaking down data on school violence kept by state education boards. Creating an online interactive map that allows users to find school-specific information with a click rounds it out, they said.
During a session on how to manage investigative work on top of other duties, Liz Roland, the news director at CBS O&O WFOR Miami, and Jennifer Forsyth, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy chief of investigations, advised reporters to schedule a couple of hours each week to devote to investigative duties, like paperwork and follow-ups.
They also said reporters should grab anything they see online about their subject right away (taking screenshots is a good bet) as it’s not unusual for content to be taken down once an investigation is underway. Combing through academic research, filing FOIA requests promptly and meeting regularly with editorial managers are also key, they said.
For broadcasters, creating engaging complementary digital content that fleshes out on-air work is crucial if investigations are really going to reach the widest possible audience and have an impact, Roland said. “Where things get really challenging is when you spend a year and a half on a story and it airs for 3½ minutes and no one sees it.”
Another session focused on boosting the visual side of stories — even document-heavy investigations — by encouraging photographers to incorporate more cinematic shots, to become more creative with graphics and to try animation.
“A common problem with investigative stories is that they are really complicated, they are on abstract ideas like conflict of interest, middle class, taxpayer money and waste and there are not obvious images,” said Evan Stulberger, a WNBC New York investigative producer.
Using tools like the graphics program After Effects can enliven reports, he said. “Documents are boring,” he said. “But you can put them in context with the story and bring them to life.”
Anna Jewson from KUSA Denver and NTVF Nashville’s Bryan Staples offered tips for going undercover on the cheap. Staples said he favors ring and button cameras that start at around $125.
For a story on men posting ads for female “roommates with benefits,” Jewson turned a GoPro into an undercover camera by putting it in a purse.
Jewson found the “right purse” in a thrift shop. It was easy to carry and was sturdy and roomy enough to accommodate a cardboard bracket she built to keep the camera in place. The camera was able to get shots through a small hole Jewson cut in the bag.
In baiting bike thieves. Jewson parked a bicycle in view of the Denver Public Library’s security camera, whose footage she was able to use in her report.
Steve Eckert, the lead investigator at KARE Minneapolis-St. Paul stressed the importance of making sure you know the local law before trying out such tricks. “Hidden camera and video and audio laws differ from state to state,” he said. “Don’t automatically assume you can do this back home.”
Other panelists encouraged reporters to not give sources too much information before sitting down with them, being respectful when going after “unscheduled” interviews and asking the most important question first.
Collaboration was also a frequent topic. “Whether we like it or not, it is the reality,” said Stephen Stock, an investigative reporter at NBC-owned KNTV San Francisco. “This is what we’ve got to embrace and if we don’t we’re going to be left behind.” (See related story on collaboration.)
“Like it or not, local newspeople are going to have to play nice with the folks once considered competitors in the revamped world,” added Andrew Blankstein, an NBC News investigative reporter based in Los Angeles.
Yet neither the onslaught of competition nor the speed with which journalists are expected to produce is reason to stray from getting the story right. “Sometimes we’re so eager to get the story, we forget the strategy behind it,” he added.