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KSDK-TV was wrong to test Kirkwood High School’s security

Last week on Jan. 16, KSDK-TV caused Kirkwood High School to go on lockdown as part of a news story.

As a security professional, a journalist, a St. Louisan, and a parent, I have more than one stake in this. And an opinion. KSDK has no leg to stand on.Not that St. Louis television journalism has ever been all that good. I still remember about 20 years ago, a friend’s cousin was murdered. One of the stations–I don’t remember which–stuck a microphone in a relative’s face and asked like a game show host, “Your relative was just brutally murdered. How do you feel?”

That’s the textbook example of what not to do. My colleagues who specialized in broadcasting–my specialty was magazines–used to laugh nervously when I would tell that story. They learned in their first week that’s the worst possible thing to do.

This time, the golden turd goes to KSDK, for driving around to various high schools and asking to speak with security, not identifying themselves as a reporter, then recording what happened.

The problem with that is very simple. Rule number 1 of journalism is that you do not make news. To the point that if a journalist is in the position to save someone’s life, some journalists say it’s unethical to save the life. You snap the picture. And there’s a good chance you’ll win a Pulitzer.

I place a higher value on human life than I do on journalism, so, personally, if I were a reporter, I’d break the rule. Being a decent human being trumps being a great journalist. But that’s an extreme case. If it’s wrong to save a human life and become the news, then that means it’s wrong for your reporting to spark another incident. Period, end of story.

And in this case, KSDK made the news. Different schools handled it differently, but Kirkwood High School went on lockdown. They saw that the name matched that of a KSDK reporter, and they called the station. The station refused to confirm whether it was the same person. The school said if the station didn’t confirm, they would have no choice but to go on lockdown. The station wouldn’t budge. So the school went on lockdown. In came the police, parents didn’t know what was happening to their kids, and general pandemonium ensued.

That’s not being a good human being rather than being a good journalist. That’s being a tabloid reporter and the wrong end of a horse.

I don’t have a problem with the reporter walking in to a few schools, doing a basic physical penetration test and reporting on it, but identifying himself before anything bad can happen. That’s investigative journalism. And as a security professional and a parent, if the different school districts aren’t doing a very good job of preventing random people from walking into the school, I am a little bit concerned about that.

And maybe he was able to wander around Kirkwood High School more than he should have, but I have a hard time faulting the school very much. They did figure out who the guy was, made some phone calls to figure out who he was, then when they managed to talk to a human being, told the person exactly what they were going to do. When the person on the other end of the phone was uncooperative, they called the police. Well, if some unknown guy is wandering around at my son’s school, I want the school to call the police if they can’t figure out who he is or where he went. That’s a reasonable measure to take to protect my kids.

As for why their school security isn’t tighter, it helps to remember Kirkwood’s history. In 2008, a failing building contractor who had trouble winning city contracts walked into a Kirkwood city council meeting and started shooting. He killed six people that night, including the mayor of Kirkwood and two police officers, and wounded a seventh.

Kirkwood has known violent tragedy, and I think Kirkwood should be commended for not becoming a police state. Their schools and offices aren’t run like minimum security prisons, in spite of their recent history, and as someone who used to work in Kirkwood and still lives less than 10 miles away, I commend them for that.

I’m speaking a little out of my element in regards to the physical security–physical security isn’t my specialty, but I’ve had to study it and answer test questions about it–but I’m sure I know physical security better than the typical television news reporter. Security measures that are visible doesn’t mean they are effective. My sons’ school district actually won’t tell us all of the security measures that they have in place, because they don’t want the bad guys to know what they’re up against. As a security professional, I’m much more interested in the quality of the locks on the doors, whether the glass inside the school is bulletproof, and whether those doors can be locked from more than one central location than I am in how long it takes to detect a random guy walking around. Yes, random people walking around inside is a bad thing, but if those other security controls are effective, it offsets that.

Some other schools had security measures that KSDK judged better. But as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan notes, those measures existed at schools that have had massacres. They weren’t enough.

I’m irritated that KSDK didn’t chose to tread lightly on Kirkwood, and instead, tried to prey on its fears.

And let’s talk about unintended consequences. While KSDK was doing its tabloid TV in the school parking lot, police officers were wasting their time chasing a ghost, when they could have been helping someone who genuinely needed help. How many people didn’t get help in a timely fashion thanks to KSDK’s ratings stunt? How many parents were late to return to work, or left work early, or late to pick up other kids from day care, due to this fake emergency?

I think the Kirkwood Police Department needs to bill KSDK for creating this false emergency.

KSDK, incidentally, calls itself “Newschannel 5,” and its slogan is, “Where the news comes first.” The actions don’t match. The station has been self-righteous about the whole thing, insisting that it needs to continue to be vigilant about school safety.

But this isn’t news and it isn’t journalism. Frankly, I think everyone at KSDK who had a hand in this stunt needs to be fired. I have a journalism degree, and I’ve looked for work in journalism. There are more good journalists out there than there are jobs. There are good journalists working in other fields because they can’t find a job in journalism that pays a living wage, but they would probably rather be journalists. Off the top of my head I can think of at least two such people, but I probably know considerably more of them. If KSDK can’t find them, all they really need to do is look 120 miles west. Some number of journalism students graduated from Mizzou about a month ago and some of them are undoubtedly available.

If KSDK wants to save face and do the right thing, that’s what they need to do. Get rid of the people who create news, and hand those jobs over to talented, ethical journalists who report the news. Let them go stand in line to apply for jobs at the National Enquirer.

Not that I expect them to do that. Instead I expect KSDK to be happy to be the tabloid of St. Louis television. But that doesn’t mean I have to watch. And neither should anyone else who’s interested in actual news at 5, 6, and 10.

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2 thoughts on “KSDK-TV was wrong to test Kirkwood High School’s security”

  1. I’m familiar with that particular sort of journalism. Up here, Stan Hubbard (the guy who started one of the satellite TV companies) owns KSTP. At one time, they were somewhat respected. These days, they are the breathless “Sky is falling” crappy little “news outlet”. If one of the other local stations reports “The state is about to invest in building a new park” KSTP will report “state money being used to destroy pristine woodlands” and then, to get double mileage, “state workers found sleeping on the job” – whether or not they were.

    What many of these television stations forget is that they rely on an FCC license that must be renewed regularly – so taking the time to write a letter for the station’s “public comment” file wouldn’t be a total waste of time. Sure, they’re likely to get their license renewed, but if there are enough letters in there, they might spend some time answering difficult questions…

    1. The station did finally apologize last night (after I wrote this but before it posted) and the school is taking steps to “ensure this doesn’t happen again,” whatever that means. The school needs to change a lot less than the station does.

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