Al’s X-Ray Viewing of Three Local TV Investigations

WTHR’s Bob Segall is, without a doubt, one of America’s best local investigative reporters.  He has a wall full of national awards including journalism’s biggest prizes to show for it.

This new story he just aired a a great example of why he is so honored.

Watch the piece about how children, even infants, are having their identities stolen and the the after-effects trail these folks for decades. It costs them thousands of dollars and wrecks their credit. Click on the graphic to watch.

There is a LOT to like about this piece.

-Bob gets RIGHT TO the story.  The piece starts with the baby pictures, and the conflict/tension builds right away.  There is no wasting my time and running in place.  Great stories get moving.

-There is no scary or emotional music. Bob avoids subjective adjectives like amazing, tragic and awful. The problem he is showing us is bad enough without the journalist adding to it for loaded adjectives.

-We see two victims, one young and one grown up.  Brilliant. It shows us the problems don’t end with childhood, they can follow you through life. It also shows that this is hardly isolated.  One victim would have been easy to write off as unusual.

-The station wasn’t satisfied with a living room interview.  They followed the boy to hockey practice.  Seeing the subject in more than one setting gives us the idea the station invested some time to know the subject of the story. They rode in the woman’s car with her, not just satisfied to get a sit-down interview.

-The station showed the problem then found a solution. That is full-service reporting.

-The station tried to hold somebody accountable. We viewers hope they will keep trying.  I appreciate that it was not all focused on how hard the station tried to track down the bad guy. Many stations would have opened the story with the bad guy, but that would be a mistake because that part of the story never resolves itself.

-I am left with a big question however.  If it is so easy for the credit companies to clean up the mess, how come the woman is still having problems and is paying such high interest? Her problem is not fixed.

The Building Materials Story

This story is from the Fox station in Minneapolis.  It is about how houses used to be built with heavier materials and now that builders use lighter weight materials, house fires may be more hazardous.  The station sets out to show how much faster the lighter materials burn. Pay attention to the production techniques the station uses. Let’s discuss that and more after the piece. Click on the graphic to watch.

I want to say from the outset that Jeff Baillon is a wonderful reporter, one of the best local reporters in the country,  and I have been a fan of his for years. This is an important topic and is well worth the time the station invested.  Let me peck away at this story all the same:

-What’s with all of the flaming story credits and the flaming time fonts? The credits distract me from what the reporter is saying.

-In my view, the story is so strong that the hyped up production of the foreground flames only detract from the piece.  Do we really need fake flames?  Nix them.

-This music is strange.  It has a sort of oriental feel. It has nothing to do with the story. Nix it.

-The story takes too long to get rolling. Contrast this to the WTHR credit theft story opening.

-The station made a big commitment to the photography-GREAT.  But they use a technique that I question.  They use the camera shutter speed to exaggerate the flames. (learn more about shutter speed in video)  Photographers sometimes do this in rain or snow to show you the individual drops or flakes.  It is a production technique that is not unethical but at minimum I found it distracting and I might argue was meant to make the flames look worse than they were. In fairness, the station used the same techniques for both burns.

-In my view, the station could have moved on from the fire test to explore HOW the codes were changed. Who watered them down?

-Do insurance companies care if you use heavier materials in construction? How much more expensive would that be?

-I appreciate the sprinkler section of the story but at four thousand dollars that is an expensive solution.  Is it more expensive than heavy wood would be?

-While I believe the story is an accurate representation of the issue, I would feel a lot more confident if we could find any other laboratory records of similar findings done in lab conditions with repeated results.  This burn could have been affected by a lot of things, a change in wind, humidity, or even whether the initial burn began exactly the same way with the same kind of sofa.  Again, I believe the experiment was accurate enough to show me what they showed me but I would like to know there is more data to support the theory.  If there isn’t that alone would be interesting that nobody else has tested this.   (note-Jeff responded saying:  “Al, I always appreciate your analysis. There have been scientific tests done regarding the flamability of these materials. UL labs did an extensive experiment which supports everything we demonstrated in the story. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to add a line about that in the piece.”)

WUSA’s Teen Drinking Project

WUSA in D.C. has launched a big teen drinking project that includes some interesting elements.  It also includes some things that make me wince a little.

Here is the opus story.  An eye-opening piece with lots of nice nuggets in it. Pay attention to the closing standup and we will kick it around after the piece.  Click on the graphic to watch:

-Once again we have a strong open once we get to the video but what’s with that music?

-I appreciate the reporter pointing out what is happening in the video. The red stuff on the steps is not blood. The reporter tells us about the parent who makes the kid apologize.  We learn that one parent asks his kid why he didn’t run. WOW.  Those are great details that I would call “telling details.”

-I appreciate that the reporter points out this is not one neighborhood but could be anywhere.

-I would have liked to have seen a snippet of the Facebook chatter to show me what it looks like when the call goes out to party someplace.

-The station does a nice job of raising a bigger issue in followup stories about what obligation police have to tell schools when a kid has been arrested away from school and after hours. And the station talks with a principal to learn how schools think about this.  There is a lot more meat on that bone.  I also wonder what affect an arrest like might have on college plans.  Does it show up anywhere?  Are there lawyers who focus their practice on getting kids off these charges? How do courts look at these cases? What is the outcome of cases that go to court involving the parents who encourage these parties?

-What do you think of the reporter going “first-person” in the close of her live shot, saying she just could not cover another teen DUI without trying to do something about it?  I have an issue with journalists going on personal crusades. The story is a powerful one.  Just tell it.

The station also has a strange commentary about viewers who are critical of the station’s coverage.  It is a sort of TV beat-down of viewers who disagree. I have to say I have never seen anything quite like that.


  1. Al, I always appreciate your analysis. There have been scientific tests done regarding the flamability of these materials. UL labs did an extensive experiment which supports everything we demonstrated in the story. In hindsight, It would have been a good idea to add a line about that in the piece.

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