The three news reports followed the same format: Television reporters walked into schools with hidden cameras, under the premise of testing the security measures. Each time, the anchors provided a sobering assessment of the findings.“One of the more depressing reports I’ve seen in a long time,” said Matt Lauer, the “Today” show host, after a report showed unsettling lapses in security.“What we uncovered may shock you,” Chuck Scarborough warned viewers of WNBC in New York.Similarly, an anchor with the NBC affiliate in St. Louis prefaced a story by saying, “Some of it will disturb you.”
That’s what happened in suburban St. Louis in January when an employee of the news channel KSDK walked into Kirkwood High School unannounced and began to roam the hallways. After several minutes, he aroused the suspicion of the school’s office staff.Soon, the whole school was in lockdown. Police officers rushed to the scene, teachers turned off the lights and crowded students into the corners of their classrooms, and worried parents raced to check on their children.The episodes often do not end smoothly. The Tampa reporter was detained, questioned and scolded by federal agents before being released. In Fargo, N.D., a correspondent who entered a school clandestinely in December was investigated for trespassing but avoided charges when her station agreed to keep her away from school-related news coverage for 90 days.
Some journalists contend that the news value of covert reporting outweighs the potential downsides. The story that was broadcast during the “Today” show in December served as a warning to parents that they should become aware of what is going on in their children’s schools, said Alexandra Wallace, senior vice president of NBC News. In that news package, a reporter visited five schools in the New York area and was able to get into one without being stopped by any security guards or school staff.“I don’t know how you see what the truth is if you don’t go in that way,” Ms. Wallace said, referring to the hidden camera technique. “The moment you show up with a big camera, things look a lot better.”Ms. Wallace, who has two school-age children, says she and other parents regularly think about school safety precautions. Indeed, news outlets often portray themselves as valuable members of the community in framing their undercover reports. Jeff Rossen, who reported the “Today” show piece, opened by saying that his daughter was in elementary school, “so this really hits home for me.”