Given a frequent lack of resources and staff, and a necessary eye set on the bottom line, local news outlets nowadays aren't usually the first place you'd expect to turn to for investigative honors. But WFAA, the Belo-owned ABC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, embraces its place as an exception.
Three times in the last five years, the station has earned a Peabody Award for its investigative journalism. Its latest honor, however, is particularly memorable because the station was singled out by the Peabodys for four different projects, covering material that goes quite a ways beyond local news formulas.
“We have a sufficient-size staff that we can afford to take gambles with longer projects, but I'm not sure you can lay it all on that,” says WFAA President/General Manager Mike Devlin. “We have a culture here that is about going above and beyond expectations. It is a culture that encourages critical thinking.” It also serves a vital function in the public trust.
The four projects, all produced by investigative producer Mark Smith, are:
- “Money for Nothing,” a special series on the U.S. Export-Import Bank and on millions of dollars in questionable loans, some involving alleged Mexican drug cartel-connected businesses.
- “Kinder Prison,” which detailed the practice of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials of detaining children and even infants in deplorable conditions while their families await possible deportation.
- “Television Justice,” an examination of the flawed tactics of both the local police department and NBC's Dateline in a sexual predator sting. That piece also won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton—the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.
- “The Buried and the Dead,” which delved into charges that Texas regulators had failed to act for decades on potentially faulty gas equipment under tens of thousands of homes, despite multiple deaths.
Explaining the unusual four-in-one Peabody, the judges lauded how WFAA covered stories that ranged from international corruption to “life-threatening dangers to citizens in the station's viewing area,” and got officials to take corrective action.
Devlin emphasizes that it took the watchdog efforts of the station's entire team to make the programs happen.
And he notes, not surprisingly, award recognition should help bring in more top talent.
“They're a great recruiting tool,” he says. “It sets our standards a little higher.”