In December 2007, for example, the quintessential local Christmastime story promised to be that of a six-year-old girl from Garland, Texas, who won airfare and tickets to a Hannah Montana event in New York with a wrenching essay about her soldier father who had been killed in Iraq. It was a heart-tugging story for most, but it bothered Harris. Having embedded with the military in 2003 during the start of the war in Iraq, he had tracked casualties from Texas ever since—and he didn’t recognize the name of the girl’s father.
That was because—as a check by Harris with the Department of Defense confirmed—no soldier of that name had been killed in Iraq. Because of what Harris calls his “legitimized skepticism,” what might have been just a sweet but phony local tale told by a less experienced reporter catapulted into a sad scandal that made the national news.
For stations with the ability and the will to allocate the resources, this may be the right time to consider investigative reporting as a way to engage viewers and, like WFAA, distinguish themselves in their market, says Hank Price, president and general manager of Hearst Corporation’s WXII-TV in Winston-Salem, N.C., and senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. “This is a great time for a station to say: What are the things we do that are important to viewers? I think people ask that question all the time but they don’t implement it because they’re not willing to say: What are we willing not to do?”
At WFAA, keeping the most reporters on the street and the investigative team working means they may not cover every car crash, house fire, or downed tree covered by all the other stations in town. “At this television station, having an investigative unit differentiates it,” says Valentine, when asked about the cost.
“I think the more pertinent question,” he says, “is what will it cost you not to have one?”