The odds have long been stacked against investigative reporting in local TV, but somehow it survives. Despite concerns about the expense and time involved in producing investigative journalism, not to mention the potential for lawsuits, some I-Teams actually manage to thrive.
While many newsrooms cut or dropped their investigative units when the economy soured, others not only kept going, they produced more award-winning work. WFAA in Dallas, for example, just won yet another Peabody for Byron Harris’s investigation of for-profit trade schools:
Stations that have committed to in-depth reporting say the payoff isn’t just in prestige or prizes. Strong investigative journalism can boost ratings, as well. But an I-Team can be a hard sell to some general managers, who fear that it will cost too much–in more ways than one.
What can individual journalists do to encourage more investigative reporting? Here are some tips compiled from comments by Scripps Network president John Lansing and KSTP’s former director of investigations Gary Hill, among others:
Educate the boss. Focus on the positive outcomes of investigative stories–what this kind of work could mean to the station in terms of community benefit and viewer interest. A good investigation can differentiate your station from the competition and maintain audience into the second quarter hour, says Gary Hill. Build interest by showing examples on tape of excellent work by other stations.
Front end the landmines. Get the boss’s fears on the table up front and discuss them. How much will this cost? What will the station get for its money? Will the station risk losing advertising dollars because of investigative reports involving sponsors? What about the risk of lawsuits?
Create a coalition. Talk over the idea of an I-Team with someone in sales who might see potential for sponsorship and for generating interest in advertising on the station. Include that person in discussions about the value of establishing an investigative unit. Show how the I-Team could help the station’s entire news product by building expertise that will pay off on breaking news as well as in-depth reports.
Establish parameters. Discuss with the boss the kind of investigative work the newsroom wants to do. Will the I-Team specialize in any particular type of story? Is there a beat your station could “own” by focusing more resources on it?
Set guidelines. Be clear about how you will use the tools of the trade. What will your policy be on the use of hidden cameras? What about granting confidentiality to sources? Will you use paid experts, and if so why? When and how might you conceal your identity to get a story?
Build trust. Demonstrate how much you care about getting stories right by agreeing to meet early deadlines to allow for script review and legal review. Involve a news manager early and often in story development and evaluation. Be open to reasonable challenges to your stories. Have an answer to this question: “Could you disprove this story if you tried?”
Take ownership. Make it part of your job to protect the station by keeping the I-Team involved in every aspect of investigative stories, from promotions to the Web site to anchor banter. Lansing says that more often than not, those are the things that get a station in trouble.
What advice would you add?