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Investigative Reporters Face Time Crunch

At KUSA in Denver, investigative reporter Deb Sherman reluctantly reconciled herself to the fact that even the best of her stories will only command about 2 minutes and 30 seconds out of the newscast. "I really have to catch the mayor with his pants down to get more than that," she said.

Sherman appeared with Duane Pohlman of WEWS Cleveland, Chuck Goudie of WLS Chicago and Keith Summa of CBS News at a session on the investigative-reporting time crunch at last month's Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Miami.

TV investigative reporting in general may be under fire, as Broadcasting & Cable recently reported, but even those TV journalists who are still able to do it must do it quicker at a time of budget cuts and ever shorter viewer attention spans.

One way Sherman copes is by trimming stories down to the essentials. "I try to have three people in every story. I try to pick one good guy, one bad guy and one victim," she said. Building a very tight focus into the production of the story also helps because it means that she isn't shooting a lot of video that will have to be edited out later. "Keep it short, make it very simple, and don't overshoot it," she added.

When it comes time to edit the story, she still winds up with lots of material that she hates to cut out, often leading her to create a longer version for the Web. However, Sherman cautioned that having the extra material on the Web is no excuse for failing to deliver a balanced on-air story. "You need to make sure you're not telling two totally different stories," she said. Another tactic is to break investigative reports up into multiple parts, with the problem in part one and the solution in part two, she added.

"We're doing fewer one-offs and lot more continuing investigations," agreed Summa. "It allows us to be on the air more." For example, the initial CBS report on allegations of fraud by defense contractor Airtech International left out many of the traditional elements of an investigative report, such as a confrontational interview with the manufacturer. However, now that Congress has called for hearings on the issue, CBS will have the opportunity to put more of what it has learned on the air, he said.

After years of pressure from news directors, Goudie said he has also given up some of his emphasis on long-term projects in favor of more frequent appearances on the nightly news. And that has turned out not to be such a bad thing, he added, saying, "It's not our job to hold news. Our job is to report news. I think we've ignored that for a number of years in the investigative world. We've wasted a lot of time not only on the air, but we've wasted a lot of time putting stories together."

In other words, Goudie said the time crunch may be a win for TV journalism. "Narrowing the focus tends to lead to a more understandable story," he said.

Sherman wasn't entirely convinced, however. "I think we win and we lose, depending on the story," she said.

A tip sheet containing the panelists' recommendations is available to IRE members on its Web site.