Sunday, March 16, 2014

News You Can't Use: Undercover TV Reports on School Security Raise Ethical Questions

I walk into some building and then announce to a camera crew that if I was a heavily armed lunatic everyone in there would now be dead. This is "investigative reporting" which is both unbelievably valuable to society and a lot more fun for the participants than, say, actually fact-checking stories about world events. But what about the ethics?

The three news reports followed the same format: Television reporters walked into schools with hidden cameras, under the premise of testing the security measures.

I broke the law, but it was for "research" purposes, so I can't be punished. For some reason that defense didn't work when I vandalized a bunch of pinball machines while under the influence of several handfuls of assorted colorful pills. Then again, I wasn't going to do a news report like "Our two remaining national arcades...shockingly vulnerable to goofball abusers!" so that might have been the problem.

Each time, the anchors provided a sobering assessment of the findings.

Well, not literally sobering. In other words don't assume you can drink nine beers, watch an assessment of school security findings and then operate heavy machinery.

“One of the more depressing reports I’ve seen in a long time,” said Matt Lauer, the “Today” show host, after a report showed unsettling lapses in security.

"We can only chalk this up to EastAsia sabotage, Goldstein, and the fact that some people don't love Big Brother enough."

“What we uncovered may shock you,” Chuck Scarborough warned viewers of WNBC in New York.

Or not, assuming you're at all conversant with something we call "reality" and don't expect the average elementary school to be surrounded by guard towers, razor wire, attack animals, proximity mines, etc.

Similarly, an anchor with the NBC affiliate in St. Louis prefaced a story by saying, “Some of it will disturb you.”

"Will there be 'accidental' nudity in the next segment? There's only one way to know for sure...keep watching!"

But these episodes have raised broader questions about the ethical and practical implications of this type of reporting. In some cases, things can go disturbingly wrong.

Or shockingly wrong. Or perhaps even depressingly wrong. Please don't turn us off and start getting your news online like everyone else!

That’s what happened in suburban St. Louis in January when an employee of the news channel KSDK walked into Kirkwood High School unannounced and began to roam the hallways.

"Wooo!!! Now that we're College Freshmen let's visit the old high school and say hi to the teachers! It'll be awesome! Par-tay!!!"

After several minutes, he aroused the suspicion of the school’s office staff.

Aroused. Staff. This is real investigative reporting. Our government is printing trillions in worthless currency, the world is on the brink of a possible nuclear war, there's massive corruption at the highest levels...Gary, we want you to skulk around a high school and see who gets aroused first, you or the people working there.

Soon, the whole school was in lockdown. Police officers rushed to the scene, teachers turned off the lights and crowded students into the corners of their classrooms, and worried parents raced to check on their children.

The land of the free and home of the brave. Nice to see prison culture entering our public schools. Kids, line up in front of the shakedown room. Do that again Timmy and you're going to the hole. Stop sharpening that tooth brush, Betty.

“They certainly didn’t do me any service,” she said. “I have a few more gray hairs because of it, and it terrified my kids and a lot of other kids.”

Reporter pulled a prank. A massive over-reaction occurred. No one learned anything.

Some journalists question whether the news organizations become too much a part of the story, and whether it is dangerous for reporters to wander into schools now that students and staff are often on heightened alert.

"Forget you man, the only reason I spent four years at Columbia studying journalism was so I could wander into local middle schools!"

In tonight's special report I sneak into a junior high and bum cigs from the burn outs. Courage.

“I think that for a news organization to just go on this type of random fishing expedition, there has to be a really good journalistic purpose,” said Bob Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University.

Another DePauw snob. Yes, it better be "really" good. I don't think "I wanted to see if they still have that stuffed cougar in the library" counts.

Covertly testing the public defense structure has essentially become a tradition for reporters.

Time for the traditional homecoming week "reporter hide 'n' seek" day. 

After the Sept. 11 attacks, several outlets tried to sneak banned items through airport security lines.

"Now watch as I try to get this sack full of C-4 through the genital-groping station..."

In 2011, a newspaper parked a car at a spot considered potentially vulnerable near the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City, to test the police response.

Basically reporters are irresponsible douche bags. Sorry if we keep dancing around that truth with endless anecdotes instead of just saying it.

In Fargo, N.D., a correspondent who entered a school clandestinely in December was investigated for trespassing but avoided charges when her station agreed to keep her away from school-related news coverage for 90 days. 

I honestly expected this paragraph to end with the reporter going through a wood chipper.

“I don’t know how you see what the truth is if you don’t go in that way,” Ms. Wallace said, referring to the hidden camera technique. “The moment you show up with a big camera, things look a lot better.”

It's not how big your camera is, it's how well you frame your shots.

Also: "Hey everyone! The giant camera is here! Man, this situation sure looks better!"

“What happens is you’re spending all this energy and time investigating school safety when that’s already the single safest place for your child anyway,” he said, adding that this “sort of reaffirms the false notion that my kids are really in danger at school when they’re not.”

If you ignore the communist indoctrination, the drugs, the sex, the gladiator training and so on, it really is the best place for your children. Better than leaving them in a junk yard for eight hours, for example.

For instance, he asked, what if wandering into a school caused such alarm that the school security officer pulled out a gun? How would the reporter react in such a situation?

Would the reporter feel lucky? Well, would he or she?

“Is it O.K. for them to set a fire and see how fast the fire department responds?” he asked. “It’s a safety issue. It’s not responsible. It’s the wrong way to do it.”

Please, don't give them any ideas.

Shill Section

Aaron Zehner is the author of "Posts from the Underground," now available in paperback and e-book. Read a free excerpt here.

His first novel The Foolchild Invention is also available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.

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