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The ethics of a TV reporter’s “undercover” bus ride

It all started, as so many things do these days, with a tweet.

The post comes from Cody Butler, a reporter at our local ABC/Fox affiliate, and it aroused an inordinate amount of interest in the newsroom yesterday afternoon.

Exactly what does it mean to be “undercover” on a school bus? Was he in disguise? What grade level was he pretending to be? What cartoon character was on his backpack?

So members of the news staff stayed to watch the 5:30 news. When the story didn’t appear before the weather, we knew our hopes were sunk. The story must have been so good it was held for sweeps.

As it turned out, that wasn’t far off because no one who noticed the initial tweet seemed to notice that the shortened link pointed to Facebook, where the full text of the post made it clear that the story will air in February – during sweeps.

Still, by logic, we are left with several tantalizing possibilities:

  1. Butler was actually undercover on the bus, which would mean that an adult television reporter was pretending to be a minor around real minors who would not have been informed an adult was in their midst.
  2. He was pretending to be a bus driver, which would mean he was driving a bus, which requires special training and license provisions a reporter isn’t likely to have.
  3. He was pretending to be some other adult who would be on a school bus?
  4. Butler doesn’t know what “undercover” means.

A post to Butler’s Facebook page gives us a possible hint about his “undercover” investigation. The photo shows one of the folding, flashing stop signs on the driver’s side of a school bus. Does this mean his story is about how many people obey the law regarding stopped school buses?

The simplest answer is usually the correct one.

It seems like a small matter – a reporter seeming not to know what “undercover” means or exaggerating his tease of a sweeps story. But undercover reporters and schools have, ironically, been in the news lately, and it hasn’t been a good thing.

According to a write-up at Poynter, a television station in St. Louis on Thursday night reported about a school lockdown – that one of its reporters caused.

The station, KSDK, was doing a report on school security that involved sending a reporter with a hidden camera into a school to see how far they could get before being stopped by security. The reporter’s actions prompted a 40-minute lockdown at Kirkwood High School, during which students huddled in darkened classrooms and one teacher gave a student “a pair of scissors to use as a weapon.”

Lindsay Toler at the Riverfront Times wrote that KSDK made the situation even worse. The reporter, who did leave his name and phone number at the office after roaming the school for a while, asked where the bathroom was and then turned the wrong way, arousing a clerk’s suspicion.

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.

First, officials called the number left by the reporter, but he never answered. The outgoing message identified him as a KSDK reporter, so the school resource officer brought in Ginger Cayce, the school’s communications director, to demand answers from the station. Cayce says she called KSDK over and over to halt panic by confirming the news team’s stunt.

I know the St. Louis incident is a bit more extreme that Butler’s bus ride, but it’s worth keeping in mind before we absently throw around words like “undercover.”

Edit: Assistant Managing Editor Ted Sullivan pointed out to me on Twitter that a clause in the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics deals with this very topic:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story