Harris, Shipp, and Smith all carry miniature Kodak video cameras—hardly larger than an iPhone—that can shoot video when a photographer isn’t available or discretion is required. And all three are eager to help other reporters in the newsroom with investigations and stories wherever they can. “I’m so old I know who to call for something,” says Harris, with a smile. Having developed an expertise on aircraft, Harris is the newsroom’s go-to source on that subject, as well as financial issues. He and Shipp also often swap scripts with other reporters for critiques.
On the wall of his small glass-walled office, Smith has a large and well-worn dry-erase board covered with long lists of stories that Harris and Shipp are working on or might be—if they pan out. Not all do, even after months of effort, and that is one of the things that makes investigative work costly.
Legal work is another expense. Although the WFAA unit has been fortunate to date, the potential for lawsuits in investigative reporting is as real as the necessity of engaging lawyers to vet sensitive reports, at upwards of $500 per hour—a cost that dampens the investigative appetite of some news directors. The cost of research and the probability of a suit can be factors in the choice of stories, too.
In the aftermath of an investigation of a grade-changing scandal involving basketball players at a local high school, the family of one named student did sue, but the case was eventually dismissed. Called “A Passing Offense,” that series involved a primarily African-American school, South Oak Cliff High School, which took great pride in its winning basketball team. It took more than a year to nail down the facts and convince the teachers—all of them African-American—to go on camera. They described how the head coach and principal had ordered athletes’ failing grades changed to passing to make them eligible to play. As a result of the reports and the ensuing school-district examination, the team was stripped of two state championships, though the coach remains.
“Our station took a lot of heat on that story,” says Smith, recalling angry letters and charges of “yellow journalism” and implied racism. But, he said, the issue was the integrity of the grading system in the school district. The station management never flinched.
It helps that stations know they have Belo’s support for investigative work, says Valentine, gesturing toward the sleek corporate headquarters across the street. Al Tompkins, a veteran broadcast journalist who leads the broadcast and online group at Florida’s Poynter Institute, points out that two of the six 2010 duPont-Columbia winners (PDF) for local television news—KHOU-TV in Houston and WWL-TV in New Orleans—are Belo stations. “That alone says something about what Belo thinks of investigations,” he says.
As economic pressures have increased, the role of the most successful investigative units that remain in local news has expanded deeper into the day-to-day life of the newsroom, and away from an older model of investigative journalists as an aloof elite.
“I can strive to be the best investigative reporter in the country, but there’s a lot of Pulitzer Prize-winners walking around without a job,” said John Ferrugia, an investigative reporter and news anchor at McGraw-Hill Companies’ KMGH-TV in Denver. “I have to provide value-added for my business.” His unit, which won a 2010 duPont-Columbia award, strives to be a resource for the newsroom, conducting seminars on computer-assisted reporting and looking for ways that daily news stories can be enhanced through the unit’s skills.
Phil Williams, award-winning chief investigative reporter at Landmark Media Enterprises’ WTVF-TV in Nashville, is another winner of a 2010 duPont-Columbia Award. A board member of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), he said that he has been encouraging reporters through IRE to think of investigative work as something that can be done daily, even as they address longer pieces.
That represents a change for some investigative units, but it has long been the case with Harris and Shipp at WFAA. “A lot of these units are in their own little world and get on the air three or four times a year. These guys are out in the newsroom and on the air three or four times a week,” says reporter Jason Whitely, who came to WFAA two years ago.
Whitely’s cubicle is just feet away from identical workstations occupied by Harris and Shipp on one edge of the sprawling newsroom. The investigative reporters routinely pitch in on breaking stories when needed, and often their practiced and critical eyes discover unexpected dimensions in otherwise mundane stories.