By Al Sunshine, RTDNA Contributor
A recipe for investigative reporting:
If only the recipe for good investigative reporting was as easy as baking a cake.
Setting up a newsroom to handle investigative opportunities takes a strong commitment from ownership, management and staff. Cut corners or take the easy way out, and you risk lawsuits, loss of credibility and ultimately, loss of viewers. Instead, take a closer look at each ingredient to add to the pot:
Make your newsroom as interactive as possible. Encourage viewer tip lines, emails and letters. Make it a point to either call them back, email or send a card back to everyone who looks to your newsroom for help to right a wrong or expose a story somebody wants to cover up. You’re building friends in your market and hopefully new viewers/website clicks.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Is the tip “doable?” Will most viewers really care? Does it affect a lot of people? What are the coverage risks if any? Do you have the staff and equipment to pull it off? For stories with legal implications, what does your station lawyer think?
“Just the facts, Ma'am.” Is there a paper trail? Has there been any official government action so far? Do you have multiple sources? Have lawsuits been filed? Are there credible victims who will openly speak about their claims? If not, maintain the tip in a computerized database for possible future use. Check back in a few weeks/months/years if you get similar complaints in the future. Do not feel rushed into coverage because sweeps periods may be near or if the station is looking for a quick ratings boost.
Scheduling crews, interviews, travel, documents and getting statements from the other side all take time. Work that into your production calendar. Breaking up a complicated investigation between several photographers, editors or producers is generally not a good idea. If you're committed to investigations, you need the staff focused on the target and not distracted by the needs of daily news because somebody called in sick.
Validation and promotion
After you’ve assembled what you need to start scheduling a possible air date, make sure your news director, executive producer and legal team agree you’ve got a story that covers all of the bases. Now is the time for suggestions about needing more material, committing more staffing and/or air time to the story. This also the point where the promo folks should come in, along with the web team, so everyone can get what they need.
Build with teases and ramp up coverage throughout the day. You might start with a quick tease on the 11pm newscast the night before you air your story. Then do a video-only version in the morning shows, add a sound bite for the noon show version, a short packaged version with the reporter on set for the early evening newscasts and the full version on the late show. If you have a great story, giving viewers a taste of what's ahead will help bring in a bigger audience. Remember that for stories with legal implications, all teases, promos, headlines, intros and tags may be worth running by the station lawyer. And for sensitive stories, ad-libbed anchor questions may not work. Even if you story is entirely correct, a poorly worded headline or casual comment can still get you into trouble.
No decent investigation ends when the credits roll at the end of the newscast. The people highlighted in your story may send in a statement refuting your findings. You may get letters from their lawyers threatening lawsuits. Government officials from regulatory agencies or the courts may contact your newsroom for more information. When details merit it, consider follow-up reports. If you detailed government or consumer abuses, seek out concerned lawmakers who may sponsor legislation to correct what you exposed, and keep it in full public view.
Investigative reporting isn't the dessert of the newscast, it's the main course. That means you'll need time to properly prepare it. The assignment desk won’t always like losing reporters, producers, photographers or editors for the time it takes to develop meaningful investigations. Executive producers may not like that investigations won’t fit in a snappy 10-second open, a minute-fifteen package and a memorable 10-second reporter tag. But your viewers may well say, "That happened to me too and I always wondered why they've gotten away with for so long. Glad to see my favorite news team doing something for me."
Can it really make a difference? Florida’s car repair laws were based on a series of investigations of mine, and followed being played on a continuous loop in the state capitol for two sessions a few years ago. My investigations into diet pill abuse in Florida triggered a ban on Phen-Fen years ago. Within weeks, the FDA banned it nationwide. Then there was the biggest tire recall in U.S. history after a series of investigations into sudden SUV rollovers. Mine started with a tip about a local accident and defective tires.
Serve your audience with the right recipe and it will leave a good taste in their mouths.
Al Sunshine is a 40-year veteran journalist who recently retired as an investigative reporter at WFOR-TV in Miami, FL.