Stations race for investigative scoops

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Sweeps: Local newscasts pushing those `exclusive' investigative reports need to be cautious about overselling.

February 27, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Baltimore has been flooded by investigative reporters, if the ads spilling out over the television airwaves this month are to be believed. "Investigative" reporting is the latest front in the struggle for dominance among the city's news stations.

Theoretically, a greater emphasis on in-depth reporting should only improve the quality of stories that make it onto the air. There are perils in this approach, however. (More on some of those below.)

So, all you dope dealers, scam artists and crooked politicos, consider yourselves on alert: You're in the cross hairs of the I-Team over at WBAL-TV (Channel 11). Or wait, maybe you'd better fear Denise Koch and Vic Carter and the Eyewitness News team of WJZ (Channel 13). And don't forget Jon Leiberman at WBFF (Channel 45) or Scott Broom at WMAR (Channel 2), each of whom has been unleashed to do deeper stories during "sweeps" periods, when ratings are of particular importance.

All the stations are pushing the idea that viewers have avenging investigators on their side.

"We are all on the same track," acknowledges Staci Feger-Childers, news director for WMAR.

The defining actor in this play for more viewers is WBAL, which has steadily risen to ascendance in news ratings in the Baltimore market. Forget days on which WBAL carried Olympic events. Forget February altogether. During most key newscasts, WBAL outdraws WJZ, historically Baltimore's dominant station.

Aside from its rat-a-tat style, WBAL's defining feature is veteran reporter Jayne Miller, who has better sources and name recognition than any TV reporter in the city. So the station decided to name her to head a team of investigative correspondents.

David Collins has joined her in government-related areas, Lisa Robinson and Mindy Basara are involved with consumer pieces, while Barry Simms has been asked to contribute on both fronts. Simms, Basara and Robinson all have weekend anchoring duties, so are not devoted to the team full-time. But never mind that. WBAL's I-Team made its debut on Jan. 31, replete with a lot of flashy graphics.

"We decided to look to the future, to see what would be the next step to move from a new No. 1 station to a new dominant station," said Margaret Cronan, WBAL's news director. The station believes it can build up its perceived strength to capture more attention - and ratings.

Cronan pointed to the state attorney general's warning, issued on Feb. 4, about companies asking for money up front for "quick and easy" loans. Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran's office acted several days after Basara reported a hard luck story about a man who needed to pay for a relative's medical care but was defrauded by a Canadian-based company, Cronan noted.

Former WMAR investigative reporter Jesse Jones, now at WBAL's sister station in Cincinnati, says WBAL does hard-edged news better than any other station in Baltimore. "All the pieces fit, and that's why people like it," Jones said.

For its part, WJZ has been advertising specific investigative stories featuring Carter and Koch. "We are not saying that Vic and Denise are investigative reporters," said Liz Chuday, spokeswoman for WJZ. "They are anchors, and they are part of the Eyewitness News team."

Whether WJZ can boost the size of its audience by adjusting its image to resemble WBAL-TV more is unclear. From a credibility standpoint, though, pitfalls loom in overemphasizing the "investigative" label.

On Feb. 13, for instance, WBAL's Collins offered an I-Team story about the renovated bunker for Mayor Martin O'Malley's use in times of emergency. The station plugged Collins' story repeatedly as an exclusive. In the words of anchor Marianne Bannister: "11 News is the only Baltimore television station to take you inside."

And she would have been right, except for this: WBAL knew that crews for Dateline NBC and CNN already had taped footage at the same place.

In fact, reporter John Patti of WBAL radio also had been inside; the station broadcast his story on the "secret" bunker back on Nov. 8. WBFF's Jennifer Gilbert did a similar piece on Nov. 13, and WJZ's Mike Schuh followed suit a day later.

News director Cronan was upset enough when she learned that her station's "exclusive" was really a "shared" that she called her counterparts at WBFF and WJZ to apologize.

WJZ's Chuday said that WBAL is "putting the investigative strip on everything, whether it's truly investigative or whether it's a regular piece of news that doesn't have an investigative aspect." But both Cronan and Collins said they acted in good faith, saying that City Hall press aides led them astray. Mayoral press secretary Tony White was contrite in an interview, acknowledging he had mistakenly told Collins no other local station had been inside.

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