AIR CHECK BY DIANA MARSZALEK

Stations Uncover Scary, Dangerous, Nasty

Here's another small sampling of the investigative reporting being done at stations. The stories turned up breaches of airport security in Nashville; abbreviated prison sentences in Indiana; industrial pollution in North Birmingham, Ala.; and uncertified, previously owned mattresses in Detroit.

Every so often I like to showcase a few stories by TV stations that are a cut or two above average and highlight the breadth of topics local news operations around the country are covering.

These particular stories cover a range of topics — breaches of airport security in Nashville; abbreviated prison sentences in Indiana; industrial pollution in North Birmingham, Ala.; and uncertified, previously owned mattresses in Detroit.

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

Nashville Airport Employees Exempt from Security Checks (DMA 29)

The story WSMV Nashville reporter Jeremy Finley did on the security — or lack thereof — at the Nashville International Airport is enough to give even fearless flyers the willies.

He discovered that the airport’s 5,500 employees don’t have to go through security checks like the rest of us, including pilots, do. Acting on a tip from former TSA workers, Finley found airport employees are able to enter secure areas through doors that can be opened by swiping badges or punching in codes, without anyone monitoring the activity to verify who is using the entrances.

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Finley and his team saw it for themselves, capturing the widespread practice with hidden cameras in both early morning and afternoon. “It happens all day long,” he says.

We’re talking everyone from baggage handlers and gate security to TSA employees — individuals who don’t necessarily get on planes, but have plenty of access to things that do. Neither the TSA nor airport authorities would talk, Finley says.

Finley, whose Meredith-owned station is an NBC affiliate, worked on part of the story with Scripps’ ABC affiliate KNXV Phoenix, which reported on similar problems at that city’s airport when its security was run by the man who now oversees Nashville’s.

The Phoenix situation was remedied soon after KNXV reported it, making that city’s airport just one of three in the country (the airports in Miami and Orlando, Fla., are the other two) whose employees undergo security screening on the way to work, Finley says.

Finley’s story did catch the attention of a Tennessee congresswoman who has a particular interest in airport security, he says. The findings point to some obvious flaws in the system, he says. “And that’s why we are digging at it.”

Watch the video here.

Indiana Felons Get Out of Jail Early (DMA 26)

WTHR, well known throughout the industry for investigative reporting, exposed state corrections policies that give prison inmates the opportunity to drastically reduce their time behind bars.

After combing through an Indiana Department of Corrections database, Bob Segall,  senior investigative reporter at the Dispatch Broadcast Group’s NBC affiliate in Indianapolis, found the vast majority of the state’s inmates were getting out of jail early, many by compounding the rewards of multiple programs that use sentence reductions as incentives. Inmates could be released after serving as little as five years of a 20-year sentence, he says.

The result can be deadly. Convicted killers released from prison well before the their original sentences were responsible for at least two murders this year, he says.

Segall says the problem stems from outdated criminal code that doesn’t stop inmates from stacking “credits” earned through various programs promoting good behavior and self improvement, like education or job training.

Each of those programs has merits in its own right, and inmates have been successfully rehabilitated as a result. But allowing criminals to compound their benefits puts thousands of convicts, including felons, on Indiana streets before they should be, Segall says.

The investigation also turned up cases of prisoners getting credit for good behavior, despite having numerous infractions and disciplinary problems.

State legislators are taking note, and plan in January to take up the issue of revising the criminal code — and limit inmates’ ability to cut their time in jail, Segall says.

Watch the video here.

Deadly Deception in Alabama (DMA 39)

WIAT Birmingham’s ongoing investigation into industrial pollution, and the health issues it has brought to a low-income North Birmingham neighborhood, has reaped the range of results, including industry recognition and action from the EPA.

The series focuses on decades of contamination in North Birmingham caused by heavy industry in the area – steel manufacturing and coke and coal companies. Cancer rates of people who live in their shadows are abnormally high.

So far, the project, Deadly Deception, has yielded a documentary and numerous stories over the past year and a half. And a second documentary is in the works.

“We’re focusing not only on the problem the neighborhood faces but the quality and timeliness of the response by local, state and federal agencies charged with protecting the public,” says News Director Bill Payer. The EPA already has given the area Superfund status as a result of the LIN-owned CBS affiliate’s work, he says.

As Payer explains, the idea was set into motion when the station’s GM first spotted a “horrible orange mass” coming out of a smokestack on a trip to the airport last year. The two-week project quickly morphed into continuing story with no end.

Payer says the investigation was a challenge for his relatively small news department. “We didn’t have the manpower or expertise to absorb it,” he says. The station ultimately hired one staffer to work on the project, but existing staff have worked long and hard to get it all done.

And the effort has been well worth it, he adds. “We can legitimately claim results.”

View the Deadly Deception website and stories here.

Dirty Detroit Secret Revealed (DMA 11)

This story is just gross.

Fox-owned WJBK Detroit uncovered the nasty practice of covering old mattresses with new material and selling them as custom made.

Investigative reporter Rob Wolchek found proof of the “new” mattresses’ old innards by cutting them open, exposing everything from rusty springs to stained covers. He visited Detroit-area mattress dealers and factories in search of exposing their “dirty little secret.”

The story included interviews with a former store employee who confirmed Wolchek’s foul findings; a disgruntled buyer who returned a bedbug-infested mattress for another, which was also overrun with the pests; and a health inspector who advised against using old mattresses.

Although the practice was legal when the report aired in July, and continues to be, the piece was apparently unpleasant enough to spur one lawmaker to action. Michigan State Sen. Morris Hood this fall introduced legislation that would prohibit mattresses with any used material from being sold as new or custom made.

Watch the video here.

Read other Air Check columns here. You can send suggestions for future Air Checks to Diana Marszalek at [email protected].


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