What a Dallas TV station is learning with Tegna’s Verify project

This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.

In an age of fake news and heightened distrust of the media, Tegna TV stations are taking steps to improve transparency and build trust with viewers through a project called Verify.

These segments show viewers how and where reporters come up with information, and what steps they take to make sure the information is accurate. 

The format continues to evolve from an idea originally hatched during one of Tegna’s Innovation Summits.

A small team at WFAA-TV, a Tegna station and ABC affiliate in Dallas, takes viewers on the road as guest reporters — literally and virtually — to answer viewers’ questions and witness the fact-gathering process. They get the chance to not only see how the reporting unfolds, but also ask their own questions and “reach their own conclusions,” says David Schechter, WFAA senior reporter. These segments can take weeks to plan and produce.

In some segments Schechter poses a question to viewers and then looks for a willing volunteer guest reporter. As viewers have become more familiar with the segments, they now regularly submit their own questions, says Schechter.

Questions have ranged from “Do we need a bigger border wall?” to “Do hormones in milk lead to early puberty?”

Elsewhere in the WFAA newsroom, a producer and her team helps viewers distinguish whether information trending on social media and the web is fact or fiction. Viewers submit questionable posts they’ve seen or read to the Verify team, who not only research the claims but later explain how they came up with the true-or-false answer. Read about this version of Verify in part two of this Q&A. 

I spoke with Schechter to learn more about their Verify Road Trip projects.

What are these Verify segments and why are you doing them?

We are involving our audience in our journey of discovery. Sometimes that’s taking a viewer on the road with us so they can ask their own questions and see things that they would never have access to, like a journalist does, and then reach their own conclusions at the end of the story. Sometimes I’ll sponsor a viewer’s question without them coming with us. Often times in those situations we will use Facebook Live in the field to allow our audience to participate in the primary interviewing process.

I want to provide information, that in the eyes of the viewers, is legitimate. I want to give them information that’s researched and accurate. I want them to feel like they’re part of the process. I want them to see the process. When we bring someone along, they’re essentially auditing the process so they can see we’re not hiding anything from anybody. It’s all open-sourced reporting.   

What kinds of resources, such as extra staff and technology, are needed to put together these segments?

From a human resource perspective, News Director Carolyn Mungo dedicated photographer Chance Horner and me to do this full time. That was a significant use of her personnel. In terms of budget and transportation, that comes out of the newsroom’s general budget. Early on when we had some seed money from Tegna, we traveled more. Now we travel more regionally so we’re not doing as much flying or overnighting.

The station has invested in a couple of cinematic-style Sony cameras called FS5s. We edit outside of the station’s ecosystem on Premiere Pro. Usually these segments are very different from what we’re putting on the rest of the news. It has a different look and feel.

Could you take me through the process that went into planning and creating the Verify segment about the homeless camps?

That one was really fun for me because it showed our brand was getting some traction. Felecia Burns, a viewer from Dallas, literally, flagged me down in person and said, “Hey, Verify, I have a question.” She wanted to know why the city couldn’t close a homeless encampment near her home.

First, I need to produce a fact-finding experience for her.  I knew I wanted to have three experiences in every road trip so I thought, let’s get her into that homeless encampment near her house. Then let’s talk about the issue of housing.

She had a real local concern about what was going on in her neighborhood, so let’s talk to her council person. But to get us and a second photographer lined up in one day is quite a feat of pre-production, so we try to schedule as much as we can two or three weeks out and see who’s available.

We started first thing in the morning and I got to her house at 7 a.m. Our guest reporters are people who don’t really know what it means to work a 14-hour reporting day. She was probably with us for about 12 hours. It’s very physically demanding and there’s not always great access to food. I had to prepare her for all of that – what kind of clothes she had to wear, bring some snacks.

On the day of shooting, the city councilmember still hadn’t confirmed when she was going to be able to do an interview.    

While we were out trying to focus on shooting the scenes, I continued to call the city councilmember to make sure she was going to grant our interview request. If you lose one part, you’re really kind of screwed. It’s not like you can go and do it without them.

After that there was still reporting to do. In this case, we learned about the topic of payer source discrimination. So we asked, “What’s the city council doing about that?” Then we had to figure out which council committee was dealing with it and call those councilmembers.

The reporting gets even more intense the closer we get to deadline because I need to make sure that everything I have is accurate, that everything is so well sourced and linked that the viewer can look at the story and know where all the information came from instead of guessing.

What impact have you seen this project have on the guest reporters, particularly in combating misinformation or trusting their news source?

At the end of a journey, we typically ask a guest reporter about their Verify experience. Generally speaking, they tend to appreciate the opportunity to see things for themselves and ask their own questions. Also, the access we provide is often a big positive. For some people the experience has led to change. For example, the guest reporter, Felecia Burns, on the story about homelessness, quit her job shortly after her experience and took a job as a chaplain at a homeless shelter. The Columbia Journalism Review did a story about Verify and contacted some of the people who’ve been on a Verify Road Trip.

How has your audience responded to these Verify segments?  

The response has just been outrageously fantastic. We have 20,500 followers on a special Verify Facebook page. We did a story about hormones in milk and whether they’re the source of early puberty for girls. That one did really well. That had 1.2 million views and it’s reached 2.4 million people. That was shared 9,300 times. So, people like it. They’re talking about it. We couldn’t be more gratified.

Do you plan to keep doing these in-depth road projects? If so, what’s next?

As far as I know we are a go. We’re looking at some virtual reality projects and an endurance-based live event where we would go on a road trip and use Facebook Live to show the process as it’s happening over a period of days.

What do you mean by an endurance-based live event? Could you give me an example?

In 2016, before Verify hit the air, we experimented with a project called #24Love. We broadcast, to the web, for 24 hours without interruption. The idea was to show how Love Field Airport had evolved to handle millions of more passengers in the last two years. We’re looking at ways to take the DNA from #24Love and turn it into a new kind of continuous live event where we take viewers with us, via a live feed, to explore and answer a Verify topic.

To learn more about Verify Road Trip segments, send an email to David Schechter at dschechter@wfaa.com.  


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