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WFTS reports don't give viewers the whole picture

Which one makes you stop the TV clicker?

Hearing this: The Justice Department has canceled hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds to a drug enforcement program run by the Tampa Police Department because a deputy chief hasn't accounted for $150,000, spurring an investigation.

Or this: A federal grant application didn't get processed because a deputy police chief filed paperwork late and didn't convene a local steering committee.

The difference between those two sentences shows the importance of context and specificity in investigative journalism _ especially on TV, where viewers rarely have a chance to parse reports on complex, detailed situations.

Since early March, WFTS-Ch. 28 has aired four hard-hitting reports about Tampa deputy police chief Jane Siling as part of its "28 Investigates" franchise. The reports said the deputy chief is "being investigated for allegedly mishandling millions of dollars in federal funds for the city's war on drugs."

That wasn't all. WFTS's stories also said the city has been receiving drug enforcement funds in violation of federal guidelines for six years; that Siling "may have lied" on applications for a different program; and that she is the target of an internal affairs investigation into who secretly changed a performance evaluation of a friend and former officer.

"To me, this story is rock solid," said Bill Berra, news director at WFTS of the reports, developed by recently hired investigative reporter Mike Mason. "What we presented was right on."

Siling said the station has "slandered" her by exaggerating paperwork problems and other delays in the neighborhood drug-fighting programs. She's frank about her desire to be Tampa's next police chief when Bennie Holder retires, and wondered if enemies within the department are using WFTS to scuttle her reputation.

"The vast majority of information (WFTS has presented) is an out-and-out lie, or has misled the public," she said. "They want to discredit me from being able to be considered as the next chief of police."

This much is clear, at least to me: WFTS didn't give viewers enough information to fully understand the situation, leading to the impression that this is a bigger deal than it may be.

WFTS is right about some things. It is true that the feds refused to process a Tampa request for drug enforcement money last year (Siling estimated the amount at $175,000). It's true that $125,000 in Weed and Seed money for the city's Sulphur Springs neighborhood hasn't been spent because Siling didn't convene a steering committee until late February.

And according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, it's also true that east Tampa's Weed and Seed site has received federal drug enforcement money for years even though it didn't have a steering committee that met "frequently and consistently." Viewers were left to assume from WFTS's reports that Siling's alleged lie was in telling federal administrators there were regular steering committee meetings.

Why did Siling let this happen? If you listen to WFTS, you get the impression she's corrupt or hiding something significant. If you ask her boss, he'll say she's no good at paperwork.

"Jane is the kind of person, she doesn't delegate (tasks). . . . She got buried in all these reports," Holder said. "We've been chastised for late reporting, but there's no indication of any missing money."

The U.S. Attorney's Office said the problems are being fixed _ Siling convened a steering committee in Sulphur Springs in late February _ and there's no evidence of malfeasance.

"Sometimes people get behind in their paperwork . . . (and) we don't want the Tampa Police Department to lose their Weed and Seed site," said spokesman Steve Cole, acknowledging that the U.S. Attorney's Office sent Holder a strongly worded letter Feb. 5 urging police to convene the steering committee.

"I think (Channel) 28 blew it out of proportion."

WFTS's Berra noted that government officials may be trying to protect themselves _ which may be true. Mason has reported that Siling has refused their requests for comment on the funding issues.

But it's also true that TV stations can build reputations on hard-charging investigative stories. Management at WFTS, which has struggled in the ratings, has pressured reporters to break more original stories and report more aggressively.

A great deal of WFTS's new identity is built around their "28 Investigates" stories, including sterling work in breaking stories about unethical conduct by former Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake.

And when such stories are told on TV, they require a clear transgression and a clear villain _ increasing the pressure to reduce complex stories to simple issues.

So where did WFTS go wrong?

So far, the station has presented a series of compelling questions: that there was $150,000 in grant money unaccounted for, that federal auditors were in town last week looking at how the police department is spending grant money, and that there is no record following inquiries into a 1997 allegation that Siling's friend and another officer played "dress up" while taking pictures of gowns once owned by Princess Diana at the Tampa Museum of Art.

But in watching WFTS's first four stories on Siling, I've seen few answers. They haven't said if auditors are in town specifically to investigate her problems or, as Holder explained, for a "regular monitoring" visit. They haven't explained whether the $150,000 has been misused, misappropriated or simply held up in a late paperwork problem.

The deputy chief has denied changing the evaluation of her friend, the former police officer, though WFTS noted Siling was the last person to sign the report.

The business about the dresses is complicated, but suffice it to say it's not exactly Watergate.

Siling, the owner of the dresses and the museum's director said they considered the matter a minor infraction of the facility's policy against photographing the dresses, and there is little chance the officers actually tried on the items. If they had handled or worn the dresses, that could reduce their now-considerable value, WFTS reported.

The station has aired conflicting stories on who was given a roll of film confiscated from the officers who took pictures. Berra said their reference to the incident was mostly meant to show a possible pattern for Siling favoring her friend, noting the deputy chief didn't keep any paperwork or evidence from her investigation.

"Where is the paperwork?" the news director asked. "Why did it all disappear?"

The whole affair points out the danger of airing stories that raise more questions than they answer, particularly regarding an incident that occurred nearly five years ago.

All of this may seem like a tempest in a teapot. Siling could have been involved in covering for her friend and there's little doubt her delays in organizing the Sulphur Springs Weed and Seed program have also delayed efforts to get additional funding.

But, lacking key evidence, WFTS has presented a series of stories that depend on viewers to draw conclusions that might not be fair.

It may all make for great TV. But as an example of quality journalism, it bears closer investigation.

To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail degganssptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com.

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