Business of News

A TV station taps viewers to help ‘truth-test’ the news

November 25, 2016
Dallas TV reporter David Schechter hits the road for a segment of Verify Roadtrip

Broadcast chain Tegna about a year ago assigned reporter David Schechter the task of finding an innovative way to “truth-test” the news. Schechter, who works at the Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA, knew what he wanted to avoid: a reporter talking at the screen, delivering his verdict on the truth, with only a handful of graphics to break up the visual monotony.

Schechter wanted to do it differently. So with an undisclosed amount of Tegna seed money and help from photographer-editor Chance Horner and creative services producer Alex Krueger, he created an occasional segment called Verify Roadtrip. The segment airs during the 10 o’clock newscast on 10 Tegna stations throughout Texas, and has appeared at least once on each of the 26 other Tegna stations throughout the country.

Each roughly nine-minute episode features a WFAA viewer who hits the road with Schechter and his crew in search of answers, to questions such as “Does fracking cause earthquakes?” or “Should I let my son play football?” Schechter and the viewer jointly interview scientists, advocates, government officials and others, and at the end the viewer reveals his or her conclusion.

“Don’t take my word for it,” is how Schechter always caps the segments. “Take hers.”

Tegna tested Verify’s pilot episodes with 3,000 people and the segments got some of the most positive reactions it’s seen in focus groups, compared to both traditional and experimental programming, vice president of news Ellen Crooke says. Now four Tegna stations around the country have made their own Verify Roadtrip segments–although some fiddle with the format. For example, two KPNX reporters in Phoenix road-tripped to Colorado in search of marijuana facts–but they didn’t bring any viewers with them.

Inviting audience members out into the field isn’t an entirely new idea. The Curious City project, run by WBEZ in Chicago, sources its story ideas from listeners and sometimes takes them on reporting trips. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof holds an annual contest in which the winners, mostly students, join him on trips to the developing world. The HBO film Reporter documented one such journey.

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But many attempts to “involve the audience” aren’t nearly as robust, which is why Southern Methodist University journalism professor Jake Batsell values WFAA’s Verify Roadtrip.

“So many TV newscasts end with hollow invitations for viewers to share their thoughts on social media,” Batsell says. “Verify goes beyond that by directly tapping into viewers’ curiosity, bringing a member of the audience along for the ride, and continuing the conversation on Facebook Live right after the story airs.”

Since September, Schechter and Horner have tackled seven questions, on topics that range from political to scientific to pop cultural. Viewers have helped Schechter investigate the mysterious “Marfa lights” of west Texas, and judge whether Austin or San Antonio makes the best breakfast tacos. Schechter and Horner have also made companion pieces that include more traditional fact-checking, as well as opinion segments. They use Facebook Live videos to help recruit volunteers for upcoming pieces.

On some of the more serious topics, Schechter seeks viewers whose political bent may be challenged by the material. He took a likely Trump voter to see the US-Mexico border wall, and in last week’s offering, a conservative meets with advocates for the Black Lives Matter movement. In the future, he wants to choose some liberal viewers.

Schechter hopes the format will help to build trust in journalists, because the audience can see that a “real person” observed the entire reporting process. What’s more, the participating viewer often leaves with greater respect for the hard work of journalism, Schechter says. “When you take somebody out in the field and they have to become a reporter, they don’t realize that in every scenario we are trying to use our training to be objective, and not debate, but ask questions and listen.”

The participant from the football episode, Pamela Jones of Rockwall, Texas, seems to support Schechter’s theory. “Now I see that it’s very important for journalists to get out there and do these stories and ask questions, because there’s information out there that people need to know,” she says. “In the past I would think that was unnecessary–‘Why are they bothering these people?’”

The Verify Roadtrip approach is particularly relevant in the wake of the presidential election, when trust in journalists seems to have hit a new low–if that’s possible. Fact-checking bloomed this year, and achieved some successes–but it’s subject to the same bias charges as all journalism. Those who see fact-checkers as serving the left simply aren’t heeding the Pinocchios and Pants on Fire.

Schechter relishes the chance to help viewers reach their own conclusions, and thinks Donald Trump’s win presents him with even more opportunities for addressing political topics–such as the feasibility of various campaign promises. “The change in direction of the country in terms of policies will be fantastic ground to really go explore,” Schechter says.

Nick Musteen, a town council member and sales director for a local company in Little Elm, Texas, participated in the border wall episode. He found some of his ideas about the media challenged–maybe in ways that Schechter didn’t anticipate. “The media mindset is a lot more liberal than I thought it was,” he says. In particular, he remembers Schechter as being disappointed when the roadtrip didn’t change Musteen’s views, and chalks that up to a liberal mindset rather than merely a thirst for drama.

But Musteen also says the finished segment was even-handed. And he says he’s understanding of journalists having certain strong convictions, such as a firm belief in freedom of the press. “So I have a lot more respect for what you guys do now, which is why I kind of hold everybody [in journalism] to a higher standard,” he says.

Viewers watching at home have given Schechter a wide range of feedback on social media, and in speaking to CJR. Several applauded what they saw as the segment’s fair and objective approach, its use of a wide variety of interview subjects, and the time it takes to go in-depth.

“I really love the way that they are providing substantial support for various angles on an argument,” says Katie Young, a private school administrator in the Dallas suburbs.

“I think that’s a position of integrity, when he’s [Schechter’s] stepping in the shoes of viewers like me. I don’t want to be told to what think. I want someone to give me the facts and let me conclude what I will,” says Lisa Maranto, a corporate tax attorney in Houston.

But Maranto was also irritated by the program’s lack of relevance to Houston. “We’ve got huge issues here that nobody’s covering…  If this David guy could tackle something like the City of Houston pension issue, that would be one hell of a public service.”

Other commenters objected to the use of news time for “fluff” and “morning show filler”–particularly in reference to the taco episode–and a few declared the format incompatible with fact-checking.

“It [WFAA] has placed undue credibility on this woman and her determination… a conclusion that was not reached analytically based upon science or facts… but rather, by emotion,” one viewer commented. Publishing a lay person’s conclusion, he added, “would be akin to the [a] journal of medicine allowing me to publish my findings/ conclusion as to appropriateness of a medical treatment or drug.”

Jane Elizabeth, senior manager of the American Press Institute’s Accountability Journalism Program, says she’s happy to see WFAA try innovative ways of explaining complex and misunderstood issues. But she says the segment would have to make a few changes to truly qualify as accountability or explanatory journalism.

The program must be sure to cite sources for statements of fact, perhaps through captioning or online text, Elizabeth says. Schechter says that’s a fair point, and that recent episodes have used more citations.

Elizabeth also argues that all claims made by interviewees should be verified–not just experts’ statistics and statutes, but also ordinary people’s experiences. As an example, she points to a woman interviewed in the border wall episode, who claimed that an immigrant gave birth on her property and she found “an illegal” sitting in her living room chair.

Schechter disagrees: “I feel like the standard she’s holding us to, when talking to non-official people, is so strict as to require us to ask to see a birth certificate when anyone tells us what their name is.”

He also points out that the Verify Roadtrip segments have a very different approach than traditional fact-checking. “It’s experiential. It’s ‘trust but verify,’” Schechter says. In a way, this cuts to the heart of the series.

“We’re going to see this with our own eyes… That’s an essential reporter function, to go see. Does it look, and smell, and feel, the way we’re led to believe?”

Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.