Local TV Investigations Top Peabody Award News Category

When the 2017 Peabody awards are formally distributed May 20 in New York, local TV journalists from stations in Indianapolis and the San Francisco area will be there with the night’s big-name honorees, taking home three of the five awards in the news division.

Two of those awards will go to investigative teams at Dispatch Broadcast Group’s NBC affiliate WTHR — Bob Segall, who will receive his fifth Peabody for exposing travesties at a charity rescue mission, and Sandra Chapman, who found a state agency’s failure to do its job resulted in contaminated groundwater in residential areas.

Bigad Shaban, a reporter at NBC O&O KNTV, which serves the San Francisco Bay Area, is also being honored for his investigation into school districts’ reliance on police officers for student discipline — and why some kids (predominately minority and disabled) wind up with arrest records, while others experience little or no repercussions for similar minor infractions.

All of which puts local TV in a pretty good place, especially since the news category’s other two winners are national news outlets — CNN, which is being honored for its reporting from the Middle East, and CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, whose reporter Jim Axelrod showed the government and industry’s role in the West Virginia opioid crisis.

Here’s a look at what local TV’s Peabody-winning contingent did — and how they did it:

Charity Caught on Camera, WTHR Indianapolis

When Bob Segall first got tipped to improprieties at an Indiana homeless shelter, the transgressions were so astonishing, and supposedly committed by some of the community’s most well-respected clergy, “it was hard to believe they were true.” The Grant County Rescue Mission in Marion was unsafe for its residents, the community members who tipped Segall said; donated food was going to mission leaders’ friends and family instead of the people for whom it was intended.

Even harder for Segall, one of the country’s top TV investigators, and veteran photographer Bill Ditton to fathom: “How in the world would we possibly be able to prove it?”

Over the next three months, however, Segall and Ditton saw for themselves the charity leaders in action. With the help of “wonderful sources” who connected Segall and mission residents, he found the allegations were indeed “spot on.”

Ditton’s hidden video captured the goings-on, giving Segall the proof he needed to confront mission leadership, go public with the situation — and ultimately push for change.

“We were simply able to be in the right place at the right time on the right day over and over and over again,” Segall said. “This story was a combination of trust, and perseverance and a lot of luck.”

The story has reaped results. Community members, many of whom were mission donors, boycotted the agency after leaders downplayed their actions and vowed to stay on. The majority of board members have since resigned.

Segall and Ditton plan to return to Marionto read the mission’s audited financial reports. “To say this is an ongoing investigation would be accurate,” Segall said. “We feel we still have a way to go to make sure the thousands of people who donated to this charity get some closure on where their donations went.”

Dangerous Exposure, WTHR Indianapolis

In Indiana, there’s a state-sponsored program, the Voluntary Remediation Program, that gives companies tied to toxic sites 180 days to devise a clean-up plan — presumably to implement it — and, in return, they can’t be sued for contaminating the area.

But WTHR investigative reporter Sandra Chapman found that the state agency in charge wasn’t doing its job, allowing some violators to go years before filing a plan — or not file at all — putting area families at risk.

“What we found was pretty amazing,” said Chapman, who acted on a tip from an environmentalist. One in five of participating companies — which ranged from dry cleaners to manufacturers — had been in the program for 10 years without taking action, or facing consequences. One company had spent 17 years in the program, without being subject to any action, she said.

Chapman found the Indiana Department of Environmental Management knew about noncompliance — and in some cases did expel companies from the program.

Yet those violators, Chapman said, suffered no consequences for failing to clean up their contamination. “We found that our top environmental enforcement agency was not enforcing the law to be able to keep these private homeowners and their families safe as well as the water systems, the soil and the ground.

“The sad part is that the folks who live near these sites had no idea the toxins were already under their homes,” Chapman said.

Although regulators dodged Chapman for months, a state representative ultimately admitted to losing track of the sites, and that changes in the program were warranted.

Since the report, the agency now warns non-compliers sooner, and will pursue the issue in court if need be, Chapman said.

“These companies were hiding out in the program and doing nothing with no consequences,” Chapman said. “Hopefully those days are done.”

Arrested at School: Criminalizing Classroom Misbehavior, KNTV San Francisco Bay Area

Investigative reporter Bigad Shaban and producer Michael Bott “were just nerdy reporters” poring over national data tracking school suspension rates — they had no particular reason for doing so — when they were struck by the number of student cases referred to law enforcement. “We assumed it was for kids who had brought weapons to school … or harmed a teacher,” Shaban said.

But they were wrong. After talking to educational and advocacy groups, he and Bott learned that, in many cases, kids were being referred to police, or even arrested, due to minor infractions that could have been handled through regular school discipline.

Additionally, it happens far more often to children who are minorities, or have some sort of disability primarily because there is no universal standard for determining when it is, or isn’t, OK for schools to use the police for incidents, they found.

Take, for example, a 13-year-old autistic boy Shaban interviewed for a story, whom the police issued a juvenile citation for vandalism after he scribbled his initials on a school sidewalk. The boy said he thought it would make other kids like him better. Not only does the boy now have a record, he still doesn’t understand what he did wrong, Shaban said.

“What we discovered is that Jack who did something at one school district might get sent to the principal’s office, and Timmy at another school district might get arrested,” he said.

The story drew national attention. In February, KNTV worked with NBC News and stations around the country to produce local versions.

It also resonated with educators, law enforcement and government leaders. California lawmakers have introduced legislation calling on every school district to define the role of police officers.

Shaban’s report even got the interest of the Obama administration, which recommended the U.S. Department of Education issue guidelines.