A journalistic low: Being the news

Last week, a reporter from St. Louis’ KSDK-TV decided it would be a dandy idea to test the security measures of some local high schools. His inquiry—and suspicious-looking behavior—at suburban Kirkwood High School caused administrators to lockdown the school for more than 40 minutes.

KSDK likes to call itself “NewsChannel 5.” Its slogan, in recent years, has been “Where the News Comes First.”

In this instance, the news clearly did come first—but not in a good way. The news department’s eagerness for a scoop really did come before everything else—including common sense, journalistic ethics, and the emotional well-being of the locked-down students and their panicked parents.

In a world that has almost completely disappeared, to be a journalist meant to observe and to report the news, not be the news. I guess the crew at St. Louis’ KSDK-TV was absent when that subject was discussed in whatever passes for journalism at some schools these days.

There were probably several other ways to get this story without scaring the hell out of an entire school community. You could, for example, simply pick up the phone, call the school, and tell them what you’re working on—maybe even get them to agree, in advance, to a secret-shopper gambit. You could interview people—kids, teachers, administrators, the school cop. But, of course, those conventional strategies would require actually interacting with people, perhaps even taking notes and checking facts—things that you can’t do via text messaging—things that aren’t nearly as fun, easy, and sensational as an ambush.

The result of NewsChannel 5’s poorly-thought-out sneak attack was not a news story that informed us about the various states of school security in an era of gun-crazy school shootings: The story became what the reporter did and its effect on students, staff and parents.

By the way, if the reporter intended to say that Kirkwood High School’s security was lacking, he got that wrong, too. His own behavior—walking in unannounced, asking to speak to the school security administrator, disappearing, and then not responding to cell phone calls to confirm his status as a reporter—set in motion a security response—the lockdown–that  seemed completely appropriate, even if it is an unfortunate, extreme by-product of the times.

Notice, too, that I have not used the name of the reporter. Although we learned his name a few days later, NewsChannel 5 did not initially identify him. So, while news outlets are usually very quick with names of alleged criminals, terrorists and victims, KSDK went all private when its own employee was at the center of the story.

I don’t have a problem with enterprising reporters who get out from behind their desks to nail down a legitimate story through solid interviews, no-nonsense questions, and serious study of primary documents.  In fact, we should welcome that kind of news gathering, because it is the—rare—exact opposite of what we often get: newsreaders essentially, blindly repeating press releases and talking points issued by politicians, police, political parties, and entertainment sources.

KSDK has publicly apologized for the screw-up. It’s  not the first, and it won’t be the last, news outlet to use poor judgment, let an overzealous reporter go too far, get sloppy, or create news where it otherwise might not have occurred. This is simply another example of the continuing degradation of news values in a corporate-driven, profits-first , news-as-entertainment environment.

It’s been said that Mt. Everest makes its own weather. We can’t control that. But it’s simply not okay for news outlets to create–and be–their own news.