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TV news teams try to revive investigative reports

Remember the Eyewitness News Troubleshooter on WKBW-TV?

Channel 7's promotional campaign, launched in the mid 1970s, crowned a series of investigative reporters including the late Henry Simon, Steve Wilson, John Pauly, Lee Coppola and Tony Farina. Commercials back then depicted the men dressed in trench coats, ducking out of the rain and into phonebooths to call their sources.

"It was a time when the station branded investigative reporting," explained John DiSciullo, WKBW-TV director of news operations. "Now if we do an investigation, we just do it. We don't brand the coverage anymore. We assign the reporters who can best tell the story."

Investigative reporters often use hidden cameras and microphones to catch subjects off guard. They also mine public records that are not always easily available, using the Freedom of Information Law) when necessary. The work can be tedious and time consuming.

"It's investigating to the extent where you have to research materials, whether you're tracking people who may be reluctant to talk, or catching them coming out of an office or building. Investigation means you devote a lot of resources and time to a subject," DiSciullo said.

Which is precisely why some stations have shut the door on investigations.

"Is investigative journalism a rarity in the industry today? I honestly don't know how many stations are investigating and how many are not," said Woodward of Channel 2.

Local TV news teams around the country have changed their approach to investigative reporting in recent years. A Federal Communications Commission study released in 2011 reported on the decline in investigative reporting on television. It also noted that consumer-driven stories are often being branded as "investigative" to fill the gap.

"The trend is that stations call promotional stories 'investigative' while shrinking or disbanding their investigative units," noted former WBZ-TV Boston reporter Joe Bergantino, who directs the New England Center of Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University. "Serious, in-depth investigative reporting happens on rare occasions in local television news."

Investigative reporting, when compared with beat reporting or covering breaking news such as fires or weather events, generally takes more time and money, and often requires additional technological and legal resources.

As station managers are faced with filling an increasing amount of airtime for newscasts – now locally at 5, 5:30 and 10 p.m., along with the established 6 and 11 p.m. shows – many see investigative journalism as expendable.

Tony Farina, a former investigative reporter for Buffalo channels 2 and 7, is now a general assignment reporter for the Niagara Falls Reporter, a free weekly tabloid published in Niagara Falls.

"When I was reporting in Buffalo in the '80s and early '90s, it was highly competitive, and the stations were interested [in investigative reporting] because it created a buzz," said Farina, 69. "All the investigative reporters at that time came from newspaper backgrounds. That was the difference. Each station had a top investigative reporter."

Farina recalls an award-winning story he did on bus safety: "I had the rap sheet on every bus from the NFTA, which detailed their [mechanical] problems. Many of them were unsafe, and I was able to secretly film the buses and their ailing parts. It was a five-part series that really changed a lot of things for the NFTA."

Now, he said, "There's too much pressure to churn things out for so many newscasts, so there's really little time to do the investigative reporting that we did. We had to churn it out fast, too, but not like they do today for four or five shows a day."

When WIVB-TV news director Joseph D. Schlaerth hired reporter/anchor Lou Raguse in February, he hoped to bolster his station's investigative coverage. As an investigative reporter for KELO in Sioux Falls, S.D., Raguse accessed internal memos from the state Highway Patrol to show how budget cuts compromised public safety.

Raguse, who anchors weekends on Channel 4, said the station is "giving me time here to work on investigations, which is nice and rare in broadcast news."

Raguse's first investigative reports for Channel 4 resulted in the closing of a suspected brothel on Niagara Falls Boulevard by Amherst police. The reports, which targeted sex trade in the suburbs, were aired in mid-May during the 6 p.m. news. As part of the investigation, Raguse used a hidden camera to record unidentified male patrons walking in and out of a massage parlor. In addition, a Channel 4 producer entered the parlor undercover to obtain a massage, but he was not propositioned, according to the report.

Luke Moretti joined Channel 4 in October 2002 after working as anchor/reporter from 1998 to 2001 at WKBW. Moretti, who covered the manslaughter trial of Dr. James Corasanti, said more time is being spent on investigations, not less.

"Research has shown viewers want more investigative stories on the air," said Moretti. "What we're doing is a team approach to investigations." He identified Rich Newberg, Ed Drantch, Raguse and consumer reporter Al Vaughters as reporters who can handle investigative stories.

Moretti pointed to his piece on burglar alarms that kicked off the recent May ratings period.

"There were a surprising number of false alarms," he said. "In Lewiston, for example, all burglar alarm calls that police responded to were false. We found a definite problem with some municipalities fining property owners for repeated false alarms."

Recently, Channel 2 aired a piece by Scott Brown on local industrial development agencies. The eight-minute investigative report ran during the 6 p.m. newscast and focused on the number of jobs created by companies that were given tax breaks by IDAs.

Last month, WGRZ-TV took a step to strengthen its investigative reporting by announcing a partnership with Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center launched by former Buffalo News reporter James Heaney. About 40 such centers have been started around the country, according to published reports, most in the past five years in response to cutbacks in newsroom staffs. Their model stresses collaboration between media outlets and journalism schools.

WGRZ reporters Dave McKinley, Pete Gallivan, Claudine Ewing and Michael Wooten also were identified by management as staff members who handle investigative journalism.

The investigative initiative was sparked in part by viewer feedback, according to Jeff Woodward, Channel 2's news director.

"Viewers are demanding stuff beyond the house fires and car accidents," he said. "They want TV news to dig deeper into the issues affecting their community."

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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