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WTHR-TV: Cause For Alarm And Prescription Privacy

Jun 4, 2007  •  Post A Comment

In February 2006, investigative reporter Bob Segall jumped from Milwaukee’s Fox affiliate WITI-TV, where he had won a 2004 Peabody Award, to Indianapolis NBC affiliate WTHR-TV. Mr. Segall didn’t disappoint in his first year at his new station, as he and his team of producers and photojournalists won a Peabody for two separate projects that the judges deemed “enterprising investigations, calls for action and great local television.”
In fact, “Cause for Alarm,” a three-month investigation into tornado warning sirens, was the first project Mr. Segall, 36, undertook on arriving in Indianapolis. Mr. Segall’s interviews at the station had happened the same month, November 2005, in which a devastating tornado hit the state. His team—which included Holly Stephen, the station’s executive producer for investigations, producer and “computer whiz” Gerry Lanosga and Bill Ditton, photojournalist and editor—decided to take a closer look at the warning systems, Mr. Segall said.
The team had expected “to find some areas of central Indiana that were not protected by tornado sirens, but we did not expect to find how difficult it would be to track down where the sirens were,” he said. “Emergency management directors and community leaders were not able to tell us how many there were or where they were.”
Using handheld GPS units, the team physically tracked down every location and plotted them on a map, to show which areas weren’t covered. “It was really a combination of painstaking effort, of going through record after record after record, hitting the streets, and cutting-edge computer-assisted journalism,” Mr. Segall explained.
The team found that communities were testing sirens weekly but weren’t keeping track of the results. An open-records request revealed that in some weeks half the sirens failed. Communities blamed a lack of money, but didn’t realize there was Homeland Security grant money they could be using to upgrade their systems. After the story aired, close to $6 million was spent in the metro Indianapolis area to renovate the sirens, Mr. Segall said.
The project included interactive Web maps so viewers could see if they were covered by sirens and the testing success rate. In addition, the station sold some 18,000 weather radios to the public at a reduced cost.
That public service component of the project “is one of the things I brought with me from Milwaukee,” Mr. Segall said. There, his Peabody-winning “The Bully Project” was a yearlong undercover investigation into playground violence, followed by the development of an initiative to help schools reduce bullying. “‘The Bully Project’ taught me we don’t have to sit back and report stories, but we can be a vehicle to create change in the community,” he said.
The second WTHR project cited by the judges, “Prescription Privacy,” took about six months to put together; photojournalist Jim Hall was a part of that team.
The project was sparked by a report of a woman who was duped into handing over her OxyContin to a creative drug addict who had gotten her records by “dumpster diving” behind her pharmacy, Mr. Segall said. The team then turned up hundreds of patient records in the trash of pharmacies.
“We knew who had genital herpes, who was taking medicine for schizophrenia—the kinds of things most people would want to keep private,” he said. The team took it as a challenge when the pharmacies involved said these were isolated incidents, and they checked back weeks later, only to discover more records.
“Don’t tell an investigative reporter you are taking care of the problem and it won’t happen again,” Mr. Segall said.
The investigation was expanded to 12 other cities nationwide, with similar findings. Several major chains changed their records disposal practices as a result.
The two reports were among about a dozen undertaken by the WTHR investigative team last year. “There just aren’t a lot of TV stations around the country that have the type of commitment that WTHR does to investigative journalism, which is why I wanted to come here,” Mr. Segall said. “The time and resources that our investigative unit is given, to not just find investigations but to then report those stories in a way that makes a difference in the community—it’s a wonderful place to be. We’re very blessed.”
Unusually, the award is one of two that the Peabody judges bestowed on Indianapolis stations this year. WISH-TV, the CBS affiliate just up the street from WTHR, won an award for its investigative work.
“We were thrilled to see that,” said Mr. Segall. “It’s an honor really for the city, and it speaks to the fact that this is a strong market for investigative journalism in general.” Having a strong competitor, he said, “makes us better, and makes them better.”

One Comment

  1. i am trying to find information on a medical doctor in bloomington, in, for around the end of august and september of 2007,he was on the news for using dirty needles on a few hundred patients at his pain clinic, i’m not sure on the spelling of his name, dr. tewari md.. hundreds of patients had to be tested for diseases. and also, he built his own hospital in bloominton and he got in trouble with some thing to do with that too. could you please send the information to me or let me know what to do to get it.? thank you very much.
    gloria burnside

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