‘Watchdog’ Journalism Has Bite

By: Dave Astor

Corporations, contractors, stores, and public officials who give Texans a hard time are facing even harder times themselves now that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has added another “Watchdog” columnist. Dave Lieber, who began writing the twice-weekly feature in March 2005, was receiving 50 to 100 requests a week from scammed and otherwise mistreated people who wanted their cases spotlighted. So in October the Star-Telegram tapped Amie Streater to become its second “Watchdog” writer.

Streater, 33, was a reporter at the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal for eight years before arriving at the Star-Telegram in 2003. That same year, a News Journal investigation on which she had worked was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for public service. Lieber, 49, was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 10 years before joining the Star-Telegram in 1993 to write a metro column that eventually included plenty of investigative reporting.

“People love the ‘Watchdog’ column,” he says. “It’s about their lives and situations. The public doesn’t care about journalism awards. They want to know what we can do for them.”

But how does the feature differ from many other consumer columns? Lieber says “Watchdog” is composed in a narrative fashion, rather than as an “Action Line”-type Q&A. “When you add storytelling to investigative reporting, you really have a potent combination,” he adds.

The reporting starts with the original letters from readers asking for help. Before they begin to write, Lieber or Streater interview the reader, call the company facing the complaint, and then conduct further research to see if the alleged problem has affected other people as well. “We don’t give opinions in the column,” Lieber notes. “We let the facts speak for themselves.”

Once in a while the facts provided by the complainant are wrong, but most of the time they’re right. And in many of the latter cases, the Star-Telegram’s exposure gets the problem solved. Sometimes, fellow readers even send money to people featured in “The Watchdog” columns.

Lieber and Streater investigate everything from nursing home abuses to politicians getting special favors (such as free parking at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport). In one case, Lieber wrote about an 81-year-old African-American woman who had been paying for burial insurance for nearly a half- century. By 2005, she had spent $3,358 for a policy that would pay out less than $1,000. Lieber’s column not only helped the woman, but also shed light on race-based insurance practices that often resulted in minorities paying more and receiving less than whites.

Indeed, a major aim of “The Watchdog” column ? and another reason why it’s different from many consumer features ? is that it seeks to end patterns of abuse in addition to solving a particular person’s predicament. “And it helps warn others to avoid the same problems,” says Star-Telegram Projects Editor Mark Horvit, who edits the column along with Lois Norder, a managing editor for the newspaper.

One of Streater’s subjects was a disabled child still waiting for a wheelchair after more than a year, even though Medicaid had paid for it. Her column got the wheelchair delivered. “This poor boy was living with discomfort everyday because of completely unnecessary red tape,” says Streater. “It’s very gratifying that we often see immediate results.”

The native Texan was raised by her grandmother ? “a sweet Christian woman who always got ripped off. So I get really angry when I see people being taken advantage of, especially the elderly, the poor, and kids. It’s unconscionable what companies will try to get away with.” Often, the Star-Telegram is the last resort for people.

“Every newspaper should do this,” Lieber says. “They’ll see an incredible increase in the level of affection for their paper. And it might be one of the things that stops circulation slide.”

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