Is it possible to do strong, in-depth investigative reporting and also do a better job demonstrating the process behind the profession?
Yes, at least one newsroom’s found an innovative way to accomplish both goals.
TEGNA station WFAA’s Verify project – the station’s take on a TEGNA fact-checking initiative – does just that, and earned an Excellence in Innovation Murrow Award for its work.
In what is essentially “open source reporting,” the project brings viewers into the reporting process as partners and auditors, working with reporters to look into stories they’re curious about.
We asked WFAA’s David Schechter to tell us more.
What’s the goal of Verify?
We take real people on the road to get their questions answered. They see what I see. They ask their own questions. They reach their own conclusions.
One of the key concepts is bringing a viewer on a story. Do you think those people trust you more going forward? Had any news media skeptics?
The public doesn’t give journalists credit for the effort it takes to find the truth. And they shouldn’t. Why should we get credit for doing our job?
But the public does tend to give our guest reporters credit for taking a few days away from their normal life to be a junior journalist. That helps build legitimacy for our stories. And it’s one reason Verify was co-created at WFAA by Chance Horner, Alex Krueger and me.
As for the guest reporters, we gravitate towards people who already have a position on a given issue but are open-minded enough to go searching for more facts and ask good questions. I think each has walked away with a greater appreciation of how much goes into making an in-depth news report and that we’re not afraid of a 14-hour workday.
What type of story works well for this – and are there any that don’t?
Selecting the right topic is essential. We build our stories around a 3-Act structure. Each act is an experiential activity. So, you need to find a question that has broad appeal, is answerable, has interactive qualities and can sustain itself over three scenes and 5:30 to 6:30 minutes of air time.
What are some assumptions journalists have about our work that you’ve found the audience doesn’t know or understand?
I think, we can forget the audience probably does not have a frame of reference for what we’re talking about. What I mean is, we are intimately in touch with the news of the day and our audience is probably not.
On Verify, we start with the assumption that no one knows what we are talking about. So, we end up spending a lot of our time explaining how things work—usually through experiential learning. I hope the result is a lot of viewers saying to themselves, “Huh, I had no idea that was going on.”
What are public misconceptions about how journalism works?
It’s probably no different than public misconceptions about how accountants, chemists, or dog catchers work. If you don’t live it every day – or don’t spend time to learn about it – you probably don’t understand it. “Show your work” is a core value for us. It helps bring legitimacy to the work.
Did it take a cultural shift in the newsroom to break down the barrier between journalists and viewers, or was it a natural next step to existing engagement?
Building the Verify franchise inside the existing culture required a significant, cultural shift. The stories are long, they don’t look like normal news packages and the many of the journalistic techniques are new to local news.
In terms of the guest reporters – they are always in the field with us and never in the newsroom. So, the newsroom is not really where that particular culture shift happened. In the field we’ve evolved an understanding that the guest reporter has a dual role.
They are part journalist. As such, I will give them the kind of training you might give an intern; teaching them how the job works and coaching them on their on-camera presentation.
They are also a stand-in for the larger audience. So, I encourage them to help drive the news gathering process. When the gathering is over, I try hard to produce a story that accurately reflects their individual experience on the road with us.
For more winning insights from Murrow winners, check out our regular Murrow Monday column.