St. Louis TV station causes school lockdown, pisses off everyone

(AP Photo/James A. Finley)

St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Riverfront Times | KSDK

On Thursday night, KSDK in St. Louis reported on a high school lockdown. And it was one that they had caused. Kirkwood High School went into lockdown earlier that day and, after more than an hour, people in St. Louis began finding out why. Jessica Bock and Kevin McDermott wrote about the incident for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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, then left.

Four schools passed in KSDK's experiment. Kirkwood High School, where the lockdown happened, failed. The reporter who visited Kirkwood High School did give his name and phone number. He asked where the bathroom was. And then he left.

In a piece Friday entitled "KSDK Investigation on School Safety in Kirkwood Reveals Journalists Are The Worst," Lindsay Toler writes about where things went wrong.

What KSDK's reporter didn't know was that the secretary noticed he turned left toward the front door instead of toward the bathroom. Suspicious, she called the school resource officer for backup.

And that's when things got out of hand.

For the next hour, Kirkwood school officials tried to prevent a lockdown by asking the station one simple yes-or-no question: Was the man in the office a reporter on assignment? But KSDK refused to explain.

Toler reported that the station has never explained why, when given the chance, they didn't squash things before the school went into lockdown.

Around 5 p.m., the station posted a statement on their Facebook page. And at 10 p.m. Thursday, as promised, KSDK explained the whole thing. Kind of.

Not just another lockdown

Lockdowns are, sadly, pretty common these days in American schools. Bock, who is an education reporter for the Post-Dispatch, monitored the lockdown as it happened, she told Poynter in a phone call. But then she noticed comments on the high school's Facebook page from a parent that the whole thing may have been caused by KSDK.

Bock couldn't get comments from the station, so she went to parents, who, apparently, could.

"They were getting confirmation and telling us they were getting confirmation," she said.

The lockdown may have hit nerves for the upset it caused parents, but Kirkwood also has a recent history with public shootings. In 2008, six people were killed at Kirkwood's City Hall by a disgruntled resident.

What's lost in all this, Bock thinks, is a real story. Bock, who visits area schools, has noticed that, from district to district, standards are quite different. But KSDK's reporting had more than just the media stunt flaw. They also compared four elementary schools with one high school. Of course elementary schools have tougher security, Bock said. They have younger children.

Kirkwood High School has admitted flaws in their security system, Bock reported, but what's obviously getting attention is how this all went down.

"They've just become part of the story and made it more complicated," she said.

And, as she reported, the incident brings up lots of questions about media ethics.

"I think it is shallow and presumptuous to test the security system that way," said Kelly McBride, Poynter's media ethicist. "You could do it with real reporting, and talking to people who come and go often. It's sort of a cheap and easy way to do it."

It's not solutions-oriented journalism, she said, that seeks to identify problems and ways to fix them. And it's irresponsible, McBride adds, not to have an escape valve when things go wrong.

As Bock said, lockdowns happen all the time. But by causing yet another one, McBride thought KSDK only adds to the apathy that they now can bring.

"Would you go in and pull a fire alarm?" she asked. "That's probably not an appropriate thing to do."

Bock thought journalists in St. Louis will feel the sting of what happened Thursday, and not just those who work at KSDK.

"As a journalist, it just makes me sad," she said, "because we face so many issues with people trying to trust us."

And for most people, she said, one bad interaction ruins the rest.

"I think our premise was a good one," said KSDK news director Mike Shipley in a phone interview with Poynter on Friday evening. "And I think the outcome of the story was an important one. But unfortunately, the middle part didn't work out as well. We regret that. It was not what we intended."

Also, Shipley disputed yesterday's timeline. About an hour passed before the school called the station, he said, and then there was about 10 minutes before the station returned the call. Shipley said that, by that time, the lockdown had begun.

Will they do anything differently in the future?

"We always take a look at our system," he said, "and we will again this time."


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