One of the region’s best-known television journalists with more than 30 years of local and national award-winning service to local viewers, Sarah Wallace is a member of NBC 4 New York’s investigative unit, the NBC 4 I-Team. In addition to earning 16 Emmy Awards for journalistic excellence, Wallace has been recognized with the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award, two Edward R. Murrow Awards and two Robert Greene Awards for Investigative Journalism from the Long Island Fair Media Council.
Wallace’s I-Team reports have generated action and results across the Tri-State area. Her 2017 investigation of Customs enforcement at Newark Liberty International Airport generated a congressional inquiry and led to the arrest and indictment of three Federal officers. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection also disbanded an elite passenger screening team following Wallace’s investigation.
A separate, Wallace-led I-Team investigation revealed questions about the prosecution of Pedro Hernandez, leading the Bronx County District Attorney to dismiss the case in September, 2017 and release the teenager from Rikers Island. Wallace’s reporting brought to light allegations that police in the 42nd precinct were pressuring witnesses of crimes to testify against suspects. While reporting on the case, Wallace interviewed several key witnesses of the shooting – all of whom said Hernandez was not the shooter.
In Rockland County, Wallace’s 2016 I-Team investigation found expired and outdated firefighting equipment used for firefighting in the Village of Spring Valley and Town of Ramapo. This included a pumper truck that failed more than once along with radios that frequently did not work. In the aftermath of Wallace’s reporting, the New York State Labor Department issued multiple violations against Spring Valley. The attention generated by this action subsequently led local voters to approve a $1.3 million bond to improve safety for local firefighters – leading to the purchase of new gear for 70 department members, a new pumper truck and a new, state-mandated rescue bailout system.
Wallace joined NBC 4 New York in 2015 following more than three decades with WABC-TV. Throughout this time, she covered many of New York’s most high-profile stories ranging from terrorist attacks of Sept.11 to the Howard Beach racial violence to the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. She also travelled to the poppy fields of Colombia for a series on heroin on city streets to the Middle East, where she served as the first tri-State reporter to cover preparations for the first Gulf War.
Cementing her reputation as one of the city’s most effective reporters, Wallace secured an exclusive, one-on-one prison interview with notorious child killer Joel Steinberg as well as with Julio Acevedo, the Brooklyn man now convicted in the hit-and-run death of a couple in Williamsburg. Through an intermediary, Wallace helped negotiate Acevedo’s peaceful surrender to the NYPD after he fled the state.
Wallace began her broadcast career in radio in San Francisco, California, working as a news assistant at KNBR while attending college at the University of California, Berkeley. After earning a BA in Communications and Public Policy, she jumped right into television news, hired as an anchor/reporter at KMJ-TV in Fresno.
She later moved to KCRA-TV in Sacramento as an anchor/reporter before taking a job as a weeknight anchor at KTTV in Los Angeles. Wallace later moved on to KCST-TV in San Diego as an anchor/reporter before being hired as a consumer/investigative reporter at WABC-TV in New York. She anchored the weekend newscasts for six years before joining the station’s investigative unit in 1998.
Wallace is the recipient of many community commendations, including one from the New York Police Department for helping negotiate a potentially explosive hostage crisis in Harlem. Wallace received the “Outstanding Women“ award from Hadassah of lower New York State and the FBI National Academy Associates “Honorary Award.“
Wallace lives in Bergen County with her husband and two children.
I recently sat down with Sarah Wallace to talk about her career in journalism, her most significant stories, and advice she would give to those starting out in the field.
Interview conducted by: Kathryn Cooperman
Edited by: Kathryn Cooperman and Morgan Moore
Cover image provided by NBC.
What is your story – how did you get started reporting? What brought you into the field? Where was your first job?
I was always interested in news from the time I was in high school. I listened to all-news radio when I was in high school, and I was very involved in politics – my mom always volunteered for campaigns. When I went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, I worked for the campus radio station. I ran for office and won, so that got me into politics – I became a senator for the campus and controlled a budget of 2 million dollars. Then, I worked for the campus newspaper, and got an internship at the NBC radio station in San Francisco. At that time, there were not a lot of women on the air in TV. So I started out in radio, and ultimately got a job in TV news – my first job was at KMJ TV in Fresno [in 1978]. I was hired as an anchor of a daily news magazine show, and also became the producer and reporter. I covered whatever was the breaking news of the day. I would report on it, then produce and anchor the show. And at that time, we worked with film – not video.
How did you get started working on NBC’s I-Team? How many people are on the team?
I worked at WNBC on Channel 7 for thirty years, and I moved over to Channel 4 when they expanded their I-Team in September of 2015. They were making investigative reporting a priority, which has always been my interest. [On the I-Team], we have five reporters, three producers, a senior producer, an executive producer, and a full time photographer, with other photographers in rotation.
What do you love most about your work?
The variety, and covering stories that can give a voice to people who are exposing some kind of injustice. It sounds a little cliché, but it’s true.
What areas do you cover? What have been your most significant stories?
I cover any big breaking stories in the tri-State area. If there’s a big news story, I’ll be on it. I do a lot of stories about wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system. I’ve also done many stories with whistleblowers – from NYPD officers, to correction officers, to other individuals in law enforcement. Or average people within the system who feel that something is wrong and want to expose it. Historically, the most significant story I’ve covered was the Howard Beach case in 1987, where a group of white kids in Queens chased three black men, and one died. The white youths were all charged with manslaughter. It was a very tension-filled case – New York City was a powder keg of racial tension in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. A highlight of my career was the case of two men who were wrongfully convicted in Brooklyn. The story first broke in 2000. [These men] had served 14 years in prison for a murder they did not commit. I uncovered evidence that they were innocent, and they were eventually freed after fourteen years in prison. I’m still in touch with them.
Where have you traveled for stories? What have been your most significant travels? Were you ever in a dangerous situation?
I went to Israel prior to the First Gulf War. It was frightening, because we didn’t know what was going to happen – if Saddam Hussein was going to unleash a missile – and the perception was that it would annihilate Israel. The uncertainty and the tension were very stressful. I have also had many situations here in New York that have been dangerous. I started covering news in New York in 1984 when the crack epidemic was exploding. Every block in New York City was a bad block. So every night I was covering the news was dangerous. It’s part of the job.
As this is a blog about art and culture, what has been the most interesting art-related story that you have covered?
One of the first stories I did at Channel 4 involved a gentleman who believed he had found a work of Picasso in his relative’s home. It was a fascinating story. From what I remember, his grandfather had bought it for $10 or $20 at a sidewalk sale after World War II. We had two experts believe that the work was real. There was an art expert down in Florida who had appraised it at several million dollars. [The story] took us down to Florida for an interview [with the expert]. We also spoke with a forensic scientist in Chicago who had analyzed the colors and said they could only have been used at a particular time that matched with when Picasso would have used them. We then went back to [the gentleman’s] house on Staten Island where [the work] had been in his relative’s basement. We went down into the basement, and the gentleman pulled out a false staircase that the work was hiding behind. It became a story about whether or not you could find a Picasso in your attic and have it be worth several million dollars! It was really a trail of the treasure. The last time I spoke with [the gentleman], he was still doing research to determine whether or not [Picasso’s] thumbprint was on this particular drawing, and believes that there will be a big announcement soon as to the work’s authenticity. Stay tuned…
What have been your biggest deadlines?
When a story breaks and you have to get out there and turn video or a script around in seconds. I’ve been in situations where you just get out there and go live at the scene. You have whatever basic information you get on your phone, or in your ear, or you have spoken to eyewitnesses on the scene, and you go live. Oftentimes there is no script in a big breaking story. That’s just the way it is – but it’s also the most exciting part of the job.
How far out do you begin working on a major investigative story?
It depends on the story. I have stories that are both short-term and long-term. We have stories that we will break in a day. We may have immediate investigations where there’s a crane collapse, and we’ll dig into the records of that company. I have stories that may take a lot of time and sometimes ultimately don’t pan out. So I juggle a lot on a daily basis.
What exactly goes into preparing a report? Can you spend months, even years, researching and preparing an investigative report? How do you collect data?
It depends on the story. When someone tells me a story is going to break, we will jump on it and sometimes have to turn it around within hours. There are different sources. A lot of times there are documents involved. There are a variety of factors that you need to go over, which may take a long time. No story is the same, and there is no pattern that makes you have a playbook for the next one. It really varies based on the story, and it depends on whom you’re dealing with. I have a number of individuals who are my regular sources, so if they are calling me about something, I know they have vetted it already, which makes it a little easier. But you still have to do homework. The best sources are people who have direct knowledge and documentation. Sometimes we look into companies and go through research on the company’s background. We may or may not find an individual who is connected to the company. Again there is no set collection of data that you need for a story. But that said, NBC has very strict standards. We always go through a standards person for guidance on what we can and can’t say, and all of our investigative stories are vetted by an attorney. So it’s not like you just get some data and think that you can put it on the air.
How do you use social media to report and promote stories? Which outlets are the best?
I primarily use Facebook and Twitter. I like Facebook, because it allows me to tell a little bit about the story and the people behind it. I think Twitter is limiting in that sense, just because you have a set number of characters that you can use. You can’t be as complete as you can on Facebook, but I’ll use whatever I think is going to be the best outlet to get the story out there. We also have our own in-house promotions and use a lot of promotions on the air. But I certainly think that [social media] is the wave of the future to get stories and your message out there, so I try to utilize whatever I can.
What do you see as upcoming hot-button topics?
The political climate is going to be charged for many years to come. I think that the #metoo movement is significant in how it’s going to affect every aspect of our society, from day-to-day workplaces to filmmaking. It’s definitely changed Hollywood, and has had an impact on everything that I can think about. I think that people are much more aware of what they say and how they behave, and that’s a good thing. You can’t behave in the way that a lot of men did thirty years ago. It was unacceptable then, but now it won’t be tolerated. The fact that there is a discussion about these topics is so important. There are always going to be two sides, but at least people are talking about it.
Do you see a glass ceiling in your profession?
It’s a complicated question. When I started in news in New York, women weren’t allowed to work the night shift, because it was considered too dangerous. It was also the most prestigious newscast to work the 11. I wanted to work the 11. I had to fight to get that job, and I did. I’ve never wanted to be the best female reporter – I’ve always wanted to be the best reporter. I don’t look at my job in terms of gender. Do I think that there are limitations on what I can do because I’m a woman? No. Is there a glass ceiling from a corporate level? I don’t think that’s true at NBC, at all. They have made diversity an absolute priority where I work. We probably have more women than we do men. My boss is a woman. The head of all the owned and operated stations is a woman. Three out of the five reporters on the I-Team are women. So I don’t see that from a corporate standpoint at NBC, and certainly not from our day-to-day newsroom operation.
However, there are some realities that you accept. I believe that women have a distinct difference of often times wanting to raise a family and be a mother. I often get this question when I speak to groups, and when I speak to young women: How do you juggle wanting to have a great career and being a mother? There is no easy answer. It is a challenge to juggle a family and this kind of job. And it’s just different for women than it is for men. But I think that there’s more room now to have flexibility than when I was starting in the business. Then, it was either you have a career, or you take off to have a family. You weren’t allowed to work part time – you were in or out. And if you did that, you may not have been able to come back. It’s a different world now, in some ways.
There are some people who like to characterize women in various industries as competitive, or they use terms like “bossy.” I think for some reason people want to promote that perception that women are not supportive of each other, which to me is absolute nonsense. It’s just not true in my industry. My very best friends in the industry are women. We have an amazing support network, and I am very close to women I’ve worked with at Channel 7 and Channel 4. My best friend is an anchor at one of the other stations.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the field who wants to pursue it professionally?
I am a big believer in getting an internship. I think that can help you prove that you are ready to move on to the next step, and if you can do the job. We’ve hired a number of interns in various jobs. What I would say about that is – you had asked – this is not a 9 to 5 job. I have had interns who have come in and said “I want to be an anchor.” Meaning, in their mind, “I want to be a star. I want to sit on the desk.” But they really don’t want to do the work. It’s all about work ethic. If you show me that you want to do the work, then I’m going to support you. And whatever you do, you need to be the most proactive person in that office. You need to go the extra mile. You need to offer to do jobs. Ask questions; be inquisitive. It’s about being curious and acting as if you are committed to the profession. A number of interns I’ve run across have had obligations and they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, stay late for our 6 o’clock news cast. That says to me that this isn’t the job for you. If you’re not interested enough in staying for our 6 o’clock newscast when I’m inviting you to go down to the studio and see how we do it, then you should pick another field. And I’ve had great interns who go the extra mile and are terrific about asking questions and volunteering to do extra projects, and are interested and curious. And those are the ones I can guarantee will get a job down the road and are going to succeed. I have kept in touch with a number of interns – women and men – whom I have helped and given recommendations to. They’ll send me their reels of stories and ask me to critique them and give them advice. So I’m very happy to keep in touch with the interns who have come up through the ranks and help them. I think that’s very important.
I also believe that everybody needs a role model. Older women in the industry should mentor younger women and help them come up and navigate through challenges. My first role model was the Community Affairs Director at the radio station where I worked at NBC in San Francisco. She was also the first female radio correspondent for NBC news. She was a terrific role model. She told me that I should take any job in the news room, no matter what, and do it well. And that always stuck with me.