Investigative Reporting, Without Getting Burned

By Gail Shister Comment

BRoss_1.22.jpgCall it esprit de car.

Brian Ross’ investigative reports on “runaway Toyotas” have led to two massive recalls, including Thursday’s announcement of an additional 2.3 million vehicles to correct sticking accelerator pedals.

For Ross, ABC’s chief investigative correspondent, the story is the gift that keeps on giving. But in a week dominated by the Haiti earthquake disaster and baby daddy John Edwards’ mea culpa, Ross’ latest scoop has had heavy competition.

No worries, says Ross, 61, who has won every journalistic award worth winning. Before joining ABC in 1994, he put in 20 years at NBC.

“It’s the nature of our business,” he says. “In a different week, it probably would have been a bigger deal. There’s a lot going on. Everyone makes their own decisions on how much play to give any particular story. It’s where your resources are.”

There’s no dearth of investigative resources at ABC, Ross says. News division chief David Westin has made “a solid commitment” to the 14-person investigative unit, according to Ross, and the unit’s Website has undergone a major expansion that has led to several broadcast stories.

Going after big corporations is a tricky business, however, and Ross knows how easy it is to get burned. Literally.

Ross was on staff at “Dateline NBC” in the early ’90s during its infamous GM fiasco. The show staged an accident with a GM pickup truck in order to “demonstrate” a problem with exposed gas tanks. It was a public-relations nightmare for NBC, and heads rolled.

“I remember all the people who lost their jobs,” Ross says. “[Correspondent] Michele Gillen worked down the hall from me. It wasn’t my mistake, but I watched and learned.

“With any of these stories on major companies, you have to go in with your eyes wide open. Who’s making the complaints? What’s their interest? Are you getting all sides?”

Ross says he doesn’t take it personally when his reporting is questioned in the blogosphere. In his line of work, it’s expected. “I’m free to criticize others, so others should be free to criticize me,” he says. “When we’re wrong, I hope we’re always quick to admit it. Sometimes we could do better.”

Midway through a five-year contract, Ross says he never thinks about retirement. He loves what he does, comparing the unit’s autonomy, story mix and lead time to those of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” the gold standard.

Speaking of “60,” Mike Wallace, 91, is Ross’ role model.

“He did it for as long as he could still move,” Ross says. “He set the standard for all of us. I feel that I have a lot of stories yet to do, and I’m eager to do them.”

P.S. In case you’re wondering, Ross drives an ’09 BMW and an ’05 Ford Explorer. As for his feelings about Toyotas, “I try to steer away from product recommendations,” he says, unaware of his play on words.