N.Y. Times Weighs TV News Reports Testing School Security

By Mark Walsh — March 18, 2014 2 min read
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The New York Times has a thoughtful story Monday on undercover TV news reports testing school security.

“School shootings, especially the 2012 attack in Newtown, Conn., have prompted not just a reassessment of safety measures, but also a rash of efforts by news organizations in recent months to assess the effectiveness of safety protocols,” the story by John Eligon says. “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.”

The Times cites at least three episodes of reporters entering schools without checking in with the office. One was in Fargo, N.D., where a reporter who did that was investigated by local authorities before her station agreed to keep her off school stories for a time. (I reported on that incident here.)

In the St. Louis area, a TV station was not able to gain access to four of five schools it tested. But at the fifth, a reporter did briefly wander the halls, and his actions prompted a lockdown, the Times reports.

And in a news report for NBC’s “Today” show, a reporter visited five schools in the New York City area, getting into one without being stopped by anyone.

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The tone of the Times piece is to question the ethics of these reports, and Eligon quotes journalism professors and observers who do the questioning.

Bob Steele, a professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., calls the visits “random fishing exhibition[s]” and said TV journalists should have some more specific purpose in mind than the fact that school security is a problem in the country.

Al Tompkins, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank and advanced training facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., told the Times that the reports suggest a “false notion” that children are in danger in schools when it is really one of the safest places they could be.

The Times notes that reports testing security in general have been particularly in vogue since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But even before that, the paper notes that after the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, a Tampa TV station mimicked the actions of the homegrown terrorists by parking a Ryder truck outside a federal building and then walking away.

The reporter involved in that incident was detained and scolded by federal authorities, the Times says.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.