Why TV journalists 'test the system' with stunt reporting: It sometimes works

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On Tuesday, two CNN producers tried to sneak into the World Trade Center site. Several times. They were arrested, Larry Celona, Kevin Fasick and Bruce Golding reported for the New York Post.

Connor Boals, 26, and Yon Pomrenze, 35, made multiple attempts to get onto Ground Zero before being arrested shortly after 2 p.m., law enforcement sources said.

The pair initially tried to get through a gate at Vesey and Washington streets, with a source saying they told the cop who stopped them that “if a 16-year-old could get on the site, they should be able to get in.”

Yon Pomrenze, left, and Connor Fieldman Boals, are shown after their arrests on Tuesday, March 25. Both men were been charged with criminal trespass, obstruction of governmental administration and disorderly conduct after trying to forcibly push their way through a controlled gate at the World Trade Center Construction site in New York City. A spokeswoman for CNN said the men were in the area to do a story about the recent security breaches and were not asked to sneak onto the site. (AP Photo/Port Authority of New York and New Jersey)

They weren't, and both have been charged with trespassing, Celona, Fasick and Golding reported, as well as disorderly conduct and obstructing governmental administration.

On Jan. 31, Poynter reported that Mellaney Moore with Valley News Live in North Dakota agreed not to cover elementary schools in three cities after trying to breach their security in December.

Emily Welker with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reported that news.

Police in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo investigated Mellaney Moore for possible trespassing charges after her Dec. 11 story for Valley News Live in which she entered elementary schools in all three cities without signing in at the front desks – an attempt to point out shortcomings in the schools’ security.

On Jan. 17, KSDK pulled the same trick in St. Louis, causing a school lockdown and, as Poynter reported at the time, pissing lots of people off.

In April of last year, Josh Voorhees reported for Slate that the BBC used students to sneak into North Korea.

The British broadcaster, however, has said the show will air as planned despite the controversy. "This is an important piece of public interest journalism," Ceri Thomas, the BBC's programming chief, said during a radio interview over the weekend. Asked whether that justified placing the students at risk, he replied: "We think it does."

On March 16, John Eligon wrote for The New York Times about the ethical issues these tests bring up.

Covertly testing the public defense structure has essentially become a tradition for reporters. After the Sept. 11 attacks, several outlets tried to sneak banned items through airport security lines. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, a Tampa television station carried out the ill-conceived stunt of parking a Ryder truck in front of a federal building and walking away. 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.

The episodes often do not end smoothly.

"Journalists have this instinct to test systems," Poynter's Kelly McBride said in a phone interview. "And that's not a bad thing in and of itself. But you have to ask a lot of questions about the institution. Just being rebellious for the sake of being rebellious? That's being a teenager."

And the actual test isn't the place to start, McBride said, but more like the last, if at all. Instead, start by asking what public good can be achieved by testing a system? Is it a system the public relies on? One that's crucial to public safety? If you're testing that system, you may be taking away resources that could be needed to help people. Also, are you just going on a hunch, or has real reporting revealed issues?

If it's clear that it's in the public interest to test a system and that there are problems, McBride said, it's time to ask if breaking the law is the only way, or if there are other alternatives.

About once a year, McBride gets calls from college students who want to test the safety phones around campus and see how long it takes someone to respond.

Inevitably, McBride said, they realize it's a bad idea and could be putting the public at risk. Why not search public records and report on people who've had issues with that system? Basically, why not report?

"When you put the public at risk in order to test a system, that's clearly way beyond the bounds of journalism," McBride said. "That's a stunt."

Not that stunts don't sometimes work.

In 2005, Tom Merriman investigated the Cleveland school bus system for WJW, following buses, counting the number of kids on and off and comparing that with numbers reported by the school. That project, "School Bus Bloat," won several awards for uncovering huge waste. (Merriman, who is now an attorney, was a Poynter ethics fellow in 2006.) And he did go undercover, with a video camera, to show substitute drivers hanging out all day and getting paid for it.

Clearly that was a stunt to get video, McBride said, "but he also had the reporting to justify a really good story."

“School Bus Bloat,” WJW, Cleveland, Ohio | 2006 duPont-Columbia Award Winner from Alfred I. duPont Awards on Vimeo.

In a 2002 story, Bob Steele offered guidelines for "test the system" stories. There are a lot of questions reporters then, and now, should ask, including this one:

"Do we run the risk that our 'reporting tactics' will become the story rather than the public safety issue we are exploring?"


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