Recent headlines about the state of broadcast TV news, particularly at the local station level, have been almost as harsh as the grim reports about the fate of newspapers.
Established TV news outlets have been shedding editorial staff, even at the once-vaunted O&O level. Stations are relying more and more on pre-fab wire reports and in some cases even running thinly veiled promotional vids complete with bogus “correspondents” as part of regular newscasts. On too many stations, newscasts have been tarted-up, tabloid-ed, dumbed-down and frequently prostituted for corny tie-ins with adjacent entertainment programming. Old-school broadcast journos like the late great Bill Stout (oh how I miss him) are sneering at us from beyond the grave.
Given these unfortunate truths, it was extra-heartening to see in the list of 2007 Peabody Award winners announced last week that the 16 esteemed members of the awards committee found plenty to commend at one old-guard network affiliate that has long nurtured and protected its reputation as a provider of local news that matters.
WFAA-TV, serving the Dallas-Fort Worth market, earned a Peabody that recognized for a series of influential, in-depth reports from the station’s dedicated investigative reporting unit on four topics: fraud and negligent lending practices at the federal U.S. Export-Import Bank; the lethal lack of oversight of the maintenance of natural gas pipelines running near residential areas; a probe of the unconscionably cozy relationship between a local police department, NBC’s “Dateline” and a watchdog group that set up a series of sting operations to nab men who trolled on the Internet to arrange sex dates with teenagers; and a heartbreaking look at conditions in a Homeland Security detainee center and the story of one immigrant family’s ordeal.
Each one of the reports is incredibly detailed, well-reported and well-told in terms of its impact on the people of the state of Texas. Each report had a swift and significant impact on the moves taken by others to address problems raised in WFAA’s reporting. But most impressive was the intelligent and altogether sober presentation of reports on complex topics with lots of specific information, documents, whistle-blowers and opinions from all sides of presented to viewers in segments than run as long as — gasp — six minutes or more.
This is reporting that takes time and shoe leather, extensive research and the support of an editorial staff with a deep understanding of the communities they serve. This is television that respects the intelligence of its audience. There are no histrionics or hyperventilating in the delivery, just two seasoned investigative reporters tackling important stories in a fearless, responsible manner. The rhyme of the slogan “News 8 Investigates” is as gimmicky as it gets.