Published January 13, 2015
No, this isn't an episode of NYPD Blue -- it's the local evening newscast.
Troubleshooting segments are becoming bolder and brasher as viewers flood local news problem-solving hotlines with complaints ranging from cracks in the sidewalk to Social Security scams.
"Original reality TV was the news," said Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University. "These are not invented situations, they are real, and the station chooses to put on blue tights and a red cape and come flying to the rescue."
And viewers are eating up these doses of evening justice.
Problem-solving segments "set off a station in a good light," added Stephens. "The station appears in an old-fashioned way as a friend of its audience, willing to jump to their defense in a good Samaritan way with more power than most of us have."
Mary Garofalo, a reporter for Fox 5 News in New York takes her job as a problem-solver personally, and she said that's what makes "resolution television" a success.
"I do every one of those confrontations with conviction because these people hurt people," she said. "If you don't believe in what you're doing, you're not going to do a good job."
Monica Laliberte, a reporter for WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., said their troubleshooting segment, Five on Your Side, receives about 500 calls and e-mails each week.
Many of the viewers who contact them are at "their wits end," she said. "They've explored every avenue they can think of, they're just getting the run around and they come to us as a last resort."
And those David and Goliath scenarios are the ones problem-solvers prefer.
"No matter how small a story, there's empathy involved," said John Deutzman, another Fox 5 problem-solver. "It's a shame that when the average Joe deals with big companies, they don't get the type of rapid attention that we get."
But exposing crooks isn't always a safe or easy task for reporters.
While Garofalo confronted a scam artist who allegedly falsely promised people a green card in exchange for cash, he "went berserk," she said.
"He called me every single name in the book, grabbed my wrist and dragged me down the street," Garofalo recounted. "I was saying, 'Sir, please don't touch me. Let go of my arm' and he yelled, 'Do you know what your name means in Greek?' I said, 'Yes, it means carnation … it's a beautiful flower,' and he said, 'You are an ugly flower, who would marry you?' He just snapped."
Even though a cameraman always accompanies her, Garofalo doesn't ask him for help. "Short of someone taking a gun and shooting me, I tell them don't ever stop rolling," she said. "I'd rather make sure these people are exposed for what they are, than worry about myself.
"Sometimes I get threats at the office, people call and say, 'I'm going to kill you,'" she added. "I tell them to get in line."
Laliberte has also had brushes with danger. One man even tried to run her over.
"A man who claimed to be a landscape artist was taking thousands of dollars from elderly couples," she said. "We found him at one couple's home getting ready to take yet another chunk of money from someone. He jumped into his car and drove towards us, swerved over and tried to hit me. More and more these days people act crazy."
Some say that problem-solver segments get especially heated because people feel that journalists stick their noses where they don't belong.
"Sometimes the scale of the chase is out of proportion to the size of the injustice," said Stephens. "Anytime journalists get involved in investigative journalism, the notion that they're functioning as a kind of pseudo police force becomes bothersome."
But Deutzman makes no apologies for his approach.
"It's the old Western theme where the good guy goes after the bad guy," he said. "The good guy wins and walks off into the sunset. … we're providing a service that helps people."