Local TV Stations: Bastions of Investigative Journalism

In her New York Times column, “The Search for Local Investigative Reporting’s Future” (Dec. 5), Margaret Sullivan bemoans the uncertainty surrounding newspapers’ future investment in enterprise reporting that roots out corruption and exposes illicit behavior in local communities. What Ms. Sullivan should not forget is that local television broadcasters are picking up the mantle of serious investigative journalism as resources become limited at newspapers.

In recent years, local TV stations have invested significant resources into building and expanding their investigative news teams both on-air and online. Some stations have even employed former newspaper reporters with extensive backgrounds in investigative journalism, such as Dispatch Broadcast Group’s WTHR Indianapolis, Block Communications’ WDRB Louisville and Capitol Broadcasting Company’s WRAL Raleigh.

A few examples of broadcasters’ investment in investigative reporting locally and nationwide include:

  • Atlanta: In November, Meredith Corporation’s WGCL introduced an investigative news initiative featuring a team of reporters with over 100 combined years of television news reporting experience, including former The Washington Post reporter Art Harris;
  • St. Paul: Hubbard Broadcasting-owned KSTP recently hired as an executive producer of investigations and special projects Paul McEnroe, who was formerly The Star-Tribune’s most prominent investigative reporter;
  • Chicago: In July, NBCUniversal’s WSNS became the ninth Telemundo station to launch a dedicated news team to help consumers who have been wronged by local businesses;
  • Asheville: In May, Asheville Citizen-Times reporter Jon Ostendorff left the newspaper to join Sinclair Broadcast Group’s WLOS as an investigative reporter;
  • Washington, D.C.: Last December, Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned WJLA create an investigative unit focusing on rooting out government waste;
  • New York: Last year, Tribune Broadcasting’s WPIX brought together several award-winning journalists to form an investigative news team “to bring fraud and injustice to light…while protecting our viewers and keeping their families safe from harm.”

Broadcasters’ investment in enterprise journalism has not gone unnoticed. Last July, Broadcasting & Cable ran a cover story about the increase in new and expanding investigative news teams at local TV stations. The article noted that attendance at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors convention exceeded 1,650, significantly more than the 1,250 from the 2013 convention and a new record.

Local TV stations’ investigations have also paid numerous dividends for viewers by uncovering corruption and illegality in local communities, carrying out broadcasters’ mission of serving the public interest. These investigations have also garnered prestigious national and local awards for their in-depth reporting, and prompted local governments to take action to correct the wrongs exposed. Just a small handful of the many investigations that broadcasters have undertaken include:

  • Tampa: Following a year-round investigation, in September TEGNA’s WTSP aired a five-minute news broadcast examining the influence wielded by a private PR consultant in local politics, potentially in violation of local and state ethics laws. The station supplemented that broadcast with a 6,000-word online article, extensive links to public records and online-only videos, a convergence of elements that earned the project kudos from the Columbia Journalism Review.
  • St. Louis: Meredith Corporation’s KMOV earned a 2016 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award after launching an investigation of the area’s criminal justice system in wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown and subsequent civil unrest. Through more than 40 stories, the investigation revealed a system of mandated ticket quotas, speed traps, and fines to help small municipal courts make money. The reports prompted one local police department to end its ticket quota system, a judge being forced to resign and the firing of a police officer.
  • Baltimore: Hearst Television-owned WBAL received a 2016 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for its in-depth, breaking news reporting on what happened to Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who was critically injured while in police custody and subsequently died a week later. The investigation into his death raised questions about police procedure and prompted major protests in the city and around the country.
  • Raleigh: Capitol Broadcasting Company’s WRAL produced a documentary from the Rio Grande Valley on the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors illegally immigrating into the U.S. from Mexico and its impact on North Carolina. The report was credited as an “excellent example of local reporting” when it was cited for a 2016 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.
  • Dallas: NBCUniversal-owned KXAS, which partnered with the Dallas Morning News, was honored with the 2015 Gannett Foundation Al Neuharth Award for Investigative Journalism. The station looked into claims by injured U.S. Army soldiers, particularly those with mental wounds, that they were often mistreated, belittled and even ordered to do things that jeopardized their medical care by commanders. The report prompted changes to the Army Warrior Transition Units and sparked investigations and hearings by the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • “Full Measure”: Debuting in October, this Sinclair Broadcast Group-produced half-hour news program airs every Sunday on 162 television stations in 79 markets. The show focuses on investigative, original and accountability reporting and is hosted by Sharyl Attkisson, a five-time Emmy Award winner and Edward R. Murrow award winner for investigative reporting at CBS News.
  • New Orleans: Hearst Television’s WDSU continues to investigate questionable hiring practices by the district attorney in one of Louisiana’s most populous parishes, who recently brought onboard two employees that raised ethical questions. One new employee was tied to a federal corruption case involving a kickback scheme at the parish courthouse, while the other retired in order to collect a pension and was subsequently rehired in a part-time position.
  • Louisiana: An investigation by TEGNA’s WWL, in partnership with USA Today and other TEGNA newspapers, found that the state’s backlog of untested sexual assault kits may have only accounted for a fraction of outstanding kits. The investigation found that while a new state law requires law enforcement agencies to report how many untested sexual assault kits they had, only half of the agencies did and others reported lower numbers than was actually the case.
  • Rochester: Nexstar Broadcasting Group’s WROC aired a special report in February that exposed how teachers under investigation for misconduct were sent to the Alternative Work Location, dubbed “The Rubber Room.” In the spring of 2014, the 15 teachers and administrators sent to the Alternative Work Location received their salary but were not given any work assignments, the report revealed.
  • Arizona: In January, all Arizona television stations aired “Hooked: Tracking Heroin’s Hold on Arizona,” an investigative report produced in English and Spanish by students at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in partnership with the Arizona Broadcasters Association (ABA). The program focused on the growing perils of heroin and opioid use in Arizona.
  • Detroit: Graham Media Group’s WDIV examined the school-issued helmets that several local high school football teams were using and tested their ability to prevent concussions. The station’s investigation found one in four helmets that were being used by the Detroit Public School System held one- or two-star ratings on a scale of five.
  • Denver: E. W. Scripps Company’s KMGH won a Peabody Award for its “Investigating the Fire” series, which examined a controlled fire set by the Colorado State Forest Service that expanded into an out-of-control forest fire that cost three lives and damaged 22 homes. Producing more than two dozen reports, two town hall meetings and a 30-minute special, the investigation uncovered negligence on the part of the Forest Service and prompted state lawmakers to take action to compensate victims.
  • Columbus: In a series called “Investigating the IRS,” Dispatch Broadcast Group-owned WTHR uncovered massive fraud caused by mismanagement and lack of oversight inside the Internal Revenue Service that cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. The investigation earned the station a Peabody Award and prompted the IRS to institute permanent changes in agency practices and policies.

The questions Ms. Sullivan asks are the right ones: Where will local investigative journalism come from? Who will expose corruption and defend the taxpayer? Who is going to hold people accountable?

Broadcasters understand our role as Americans’ most-trusted, top-choice news source and our power to drive local conversations.  That’s why many TV stations have invested in investigative journalism to fill the gap left by a declining print industry. I believe we have answered Ms. Sullivan’s questions. Broadcasters have already assumed the important role of the watchdogs of our democracy.