Late last year Fargo television station Valley News Live came under fire after a reporter with a hidden camera went into multiple schools and walked around to test how far she could get before school officials challenged her. As it turned out, security was pretty lax, but the reporter and her station came under heavy criticism and law enforcement launched an investigation.
I defended Valley News Live’s report (full disclosure: I’ve been paid to guest host by the station), because school security is a perfect valid topic for hard-nosed journalism, but a similar incident in Missouri saw a reporter with a hidden camera prompting a school lockdown:
An undercover television news story to test security in local schools triggered a lockdown Thursday at Kirkwood High, angering parents and raising questions about media ethics.
Students and teachers at the school were huddled in classrooms with the lights off for about 40 minutes Thursday afternoon after a man came into the school and asked to speak with security.
The visitor initially gave his name and cellphone number and when the secretary left to get the school resource officer, the man left the office, Kirkwood district spokeswoman Ginger Cayce said. Administrators became alarmed when he asked the location of a restroom, left the office, but went a different direction.
When they called his cellphone, he did not answer, but his voicemail said he was a KSDK reporter. Cayce said she tried three times to confirm with the news station that the man was actually with KSDK with no success. …
Students were huddled in locked classrooms with the lights off for about 40 minutes before Cayce heard back from KSDK that the reporter came to the school to test security measures with a hidden camera.
“We learned some things from this, but we are still dismayed that a call was not given after to let us know this was a test,” Cayce said. “We could have prevented the alarm to our parents, students and staff.” …
Many parents, who spent the lockdown in a panic, criticized the station’s tactics to get the story.
Stacey Woodruff said she was in tears when she first heard about the lockdown, and spent the entire time communicating with her 14-year-old daughter, who was in math class, on her cell phone. She said her teacher was keeping the students calm.
“She kept saying, ‘Mom, I’m OK,” Woodruff said. “When I found out it was KSDK, I was and still am livid.”
I still think what Valley News Live did in Fargo was just fine, and I think the law enforcement investigation was a shameful act of shooting the messenger by embarrassed school officials, but this incident in Missouri indicates how dangerous these sort of reports can be.
Imagine if someone – a school official or a police officer – had gone after the reporter thinking he was a real attacker.