The phrase “investigative journalism” conjures glamorous images of reporters traveling the globe and interviewing secret sources, but most investigative reports take place at desks, with reporters and producers sorting through reams of data with the help of spreadsheets and other tools.
Adam Walser of WHAS-TV applies databases, social media, IP video interviews and shoe leather to investigative reporting. It’s those tools—websites, spreadsheets, Google Maps, and other technologies—that allow today’s TV reporters to research such Peabody-winning stories as the report by KSTP-TV in Minneapolis on welfare waste in the state of Minnesota, or the revelation from WTHR-TV in Indianapolis that instead of adding jobs, companies receiving job-creating grants from the Indiana Economic Development Corp. had actually eliminated them.
“Evolving technology has definitely changed the way I do my job over the years,” said Adam Walser, investigative reporter at Belo’s WHAS-TV Louisville, Ky., who has reported on the poor treatment of employees at the local public works department and on a multi-state prostitution ring. “When I started out in television news in 1992, I didn’t have access to the Internet, cellphones only allowed you to talk for 60 minutes a month… and simple things like background checks took hours at county clerks office. Now, you can find out most things you need to know with a series of keystrokes.”
“There’s no doubt that technology has changed the way that we investigate stories,” said Mark Albert, reporter for Hubbard’s KSTP-TV in St. Paul-Minneapolis. “It changes how we investigate, conceptualize, research and how the final story looks on the air and on multiple platforms.”
For example, while reporting the series on welfare waste, Albert and an investigative producer, Mike Maybay, gathered hundreds of pages of data. Maybay went to work on a spreadsheet and quickly ferreted out some key points. “After that, I knew what the lead of the story was and who to interview,” Albert said.
While the data in and of itself is not interesting to the average viewer, the story that it tells is.
“Online information and other data from computer-assisted reporting can be invaluable in establishing trends and otherwise identifying possible stories,” Walser said. “The basis thesis was established using computer-generated data. The personalization came from working human sources.”
Other technologies, including Facebook and Twitter, can help track down those sources, while technologies such as Skype and fring can allow reporters to interview these sources over IP video from their office computer.
Mark Albert, KSTP-TV “I have recently partnered with sources in Texas, Florida and Seattle in connection with wide-ranging investigations,” Walser said. “We have used satellite interviews and the ability to send video over the computer to quickly turn these pieces. In many cases, we will shoot an interview on our end and send it to one of our affiliates in another city in which stories will be done on both ends on the same day.”
For Albert, it’s important to think just as much about how a story will play online as about how it will play on TV.
“The days are gone when you can only think about the story that you are doing for the 5 o’clock news,” he said. “I always have to think about what my Web elements are going to be, and how I’m interacting with viewers. Every reporter in the world probably has information that they can’t fit into the story for time constraints. The Web is a great place for all of that.”
Interacting with viewers is always top of mind for Albert, and he uses technology to make that happen.
“These electronic tools have opened up the dialogue with viewers,” he said. “It allows us to discover new sources, new information and new stories that I don’t think we would have had before because there wasn’t that engagement with viewers.
“We get tremendous feedback on some of our stories. After we did that year-long series on welfare waste, people were responding on Twitter and Facebook. That pointed me in new directions that kept that series going, and gave us access to amazing research that we previously didn’t have.”
Albert also uses tools such as Google Docs and Google Maps to put more information online for viewers who are interested in knowing more about stories that they’ve seen on TV. “I think we owe it to people to give them more information in the platform that they are using,” he said.
In the end, technology is a tool but it doesn’t replace getting out and talking with people, say reporters.
“There is never a replacement for what I call ‘shoe leather’ journalism,” Walser said, “meaning knocking on doors, interviewing neighbors and conducting surveillance. That is what generally separates the best investigative reporters in the business from those who are average.”
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