You’ve heard the promos. The authoritative, stentorian voice announcing tonight’s exclusive I-team report that will change your life forever. The hook sounds convincing enough, and sometimes there is substance to match.
Too often, however, today’s television “investigations” are nothing more than fancy features or consumer claptrap designed more for ratings than for hard-hitting journalism, critics say.
Greg Dobbs, a 23-year veteran of ABC News who now teaches journalism at the University of Colorado, cites the example of the “investigative” label by Denver’s KUSA-TV, an NBC affiliate, to describe the story of a Colorado teacher who was trying to locate a child to thank her for returning some money the teacher had lost.
“A lot of these so-called investigative units really just do longer versions of, say, a story on a fire, but they don’t get out and look for the arsonist, and they don’t do a lot of what an investigator does,” Mr. Dobbs said.
Rob Owen, the TV editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, recently penned a column about his distaste for most TV news investigations. “I have been conditioned to be skeptical of them by years of promos and reports that led me to believe the worst,” he wrote, “only to find out at the end it was mostly hype.”
Insufficient newsroom budgets, lean staffing and tight controls on time have relegated most investigative reporting to newspapers and magazines. There are some notable exceptions, but by and large, few television stations undertake the type of investigative reports that set the world on its ear in the days of Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly.
Doing it right
When a television station hits the target with a forceful report, it can reap enormous benefits in ratings, revenue and community sentiment.
Investigative reporter Laure Quinlivan at ABC affiliate WCPO-TV, Cincinnati, took home a Peabody Award and a citation from Investigative Reporters and Editors for her hard-hitting reports on abandoned buildings on the city’s Vine Street, the site of riots in 2000. What started out as a series of two-minute reports wound up being a much larger project.
“My boss suggested that we do a documentary,” Ms. Quinlivan said. “No one had ever said that to me in my entire career.”
The resulting one-hour program aired in prime time on WCPO, was picked up by a local PBS station that ran it three times, then was carried numerous times by the local cable operator on an access channel.
“It opened up a whole new set of possibilities to think about the format,” Ms. Quinlivan said. “We are often told that viewers want things short and snappy, that they get bored, but that’s just not true. If it’s good television, they will watch.”
Smaller markets sometimes hit the jackpot. A reporter at CBS affiliate KOLD-TV in Tucson, Ariz., last year found a pattern of problems in Ford Motor Co.’s popular Crown Victoria police car. Reporter Chip Yost pursued the story, even though it took him out of the newsroom for weeks.
“While he was investigating, he was not contributing to the daily grind, and that put a big hole in our news operation. But it was worth it,” said Bob Smith, KOLD news director.
Mr. Yost’s reports, picked up by national media, helped convince Ford to redesign the vehicle.
“All it took was a television reporter in Tucson, Ariz., to come up with the answer,” Mr. Smith said.
Short and sweet
At many other stations, however, investigative reports tend to be much softer, shorter and sporadic.
“They tell us what they want is the consumer stories,” said Susan Krivelow, executive VP at NewsProNet, an Atlanta-based syndicator of news content and features. “The audience wants anything that affects their lives: health, insurance, consumer and government-type investigations.”
Ms. Krivelow concedes that most of the stories her company provides would not be considered “investigative” under anything but the broadest definition, but that’s the way some stations promote them.
And amid the clutter of six to eight news organizations vying for ratings, stations need something to differentiate themselves-something to call attention to their product. “To some, it is more about the promotion than about the story,” Mr. Dobbs said.
Travel from market to market, and one is likely to hear similar versions of investigative reports. Sometimes it’s attributable to coincidence, but more often than not the stories demonstrate the formulaic influence of news consultants.
This is an all too frequent refrain for Ms. Quinlivan. “Some of my colleagues tell me of their frustrations because they have what they think is a great idea, but their boss tells them to do something else because `it was a big hit in Houston,”’ she said.
Investigative reporters also complain of getting pulled off of a story to deal with a breaking story or a “newsroom crisis.”
“Local TV seldom has the staff or resources to do the longer in-depth pieces, but there are times that the visualization of the story makes it much more powerful and compelling,” said Brant Houston, IRE executive director.
Good video frequently makes for a good promo. TV critic Rob Owen has suggested that toning down the hype might be a step in the right direction. “Better yet,” he wrote, “do fewer stories and spend more time on them. Of course, then stations would have fewer stories to promote, and they’d hate that.”