Investigative reporting: Gone the way of the typewriter?

August 22, 2012

Ah, local TV news. Weather, sports, ambulance chasing. No real reporting, right?

Not so fast.

Amid growing attention to a small indigenous community in southeastern Nevada whose health and traditional practices have been devastated by pollution spewed from a nearly 50-year-old coal-fired power plant near their homes, NBC affiliate News 3 in Las Vegas wanted in on the Moapa Paiutes story this summer as well.

News 3 got in — and promptly got hit with an all-out blitz by the plant owner’s PR team to manipulate their coverage.

Reporter Reed Cowen wasn’t cowed.

After airing interviews with residents in Part 1, Cowen exposed the company’s PR tactics in Part 2, highlighting their heavy-handed emails on screen. “NV Energy [the plant owner] discouraged our cameraman from coming in for the first part of our meeting, so I rolled with my iphone,” Cowan tells viewers.

What is this, “The Wire?”

Clearly annoyed with NV Energy’s campaign to whitewash his reporting (the company’s PR escort at the plant actually steps in at one point to “suggest” a change in his line of questioning), Cowen decides to test the company’s claim that the coal dust that blows around the plant and onto the Maoapa Paiutes’ reservation is “safe.” He brings a sample to an independent lab, and in Part 3 airs the findings that it contains dangerous levels of arsenic, chromium, and other toxins.

“Let me share a remarkable story with you,” Grist’s David Roberts writes in his commentary on the News 3 report. “It’s about coal: the people it harms, the arrogance the industry has developed….”

Sounds like a story for good investigative journalism. And it has been – especially from local TV newsrooms.

(Also see Las Vegas CBS affiliate’s two-part investigative report.)

Jeff Cappella