Posted at 12:00 PM on April 22, 2009
by Jeff Horwich
No sooner had the parents of Edina, Minnesota clutched their young ones to their breasts to protect them from -- journalists! -- than we're told the whole idea was never really a serious one from the start. (As of today, then, it's safe to assume anyone who does ask a child for directions in Edina is a genuine pedophile.)
After school officials communicated last night that the story concept had been called off, KMSP Fox 9 posted this statement on its web site:
For the past week, FOX 9 News has discussed several ways to drive home the importance of teaching children to be safe around strangers. FOX 9 News informed Edina police about the possibility of pursuing an investigative report on how youngsters responded when asked directions from strangers, and that parental permission would be obtained before talking to any children. Edina police erroneously alerted the school system that the station was going ahead with the story. After being contacted by FOX 9 and told otherwise, the Edina public schools sent a second e-mail to parents saying that no such story was being planned.
KMSP is referring all questions on this to a national Fox spokeswoman in New York. However, a Question Referred is not a Question Answered. All the questions I asked her were met with "it's all in the statement" and "you'll have to ask the police about that" and "yes, that's how you spell it but no, you can't use my name." You gotta love media spokespeople who won't speak on the record.
Truth is, it's not all in the statement. Here are the questions that could still use an answer:
* If this was only a "possibility" and actually "no such story was being planned," how did the Edina police wind up with a concrete window of Tuesday afternoon "between 2 and 4:30" to communicate with the school? Did the police make it up?
* Did the police also conjure up the possible vehicle, a "2004 silver Ford Explorer or Expedition"? (These quotes are from the original principal's email to parents.) That's a lot of detail for a story that was never more than a gleam in an editor's eye.
* How in the world would this concept work if you're obtaining parents' permission before asking their children for directions? Either there's a little historical revision happening here, or this story was going to be much more boring than it appears at first blush. ("Tonight at 10: Our Action I-Team interviews children about what it's like to give directions to people.")
* WHAT were you thinking? Really -- what were you thinking? No, I mean it: What were you thinking?
It's entirely possible, as Fox suggests, that someone at the Edina police department totally shanked this one. I put a call to Edina Police Spokeswoman Molly Anderson about two hours ago (and followed up with another message 30 minutes ago) to ask what happened. No word.
One plausible scenario: Fox called up the police just to float the idea and see if they'd be supportive, or if they might interfere. And the police "erroneously" informed the school that the whole operation was green-lighted. (Better safe than sorry?)
But then there are those details -- specific time window, make of car, intention to "ask children for directions" (a phrase which was conveyed in quotes, suggesting it was a concrete part of Fox 9's description of the story)....
I'll update this post if and when I hear from the police. UPDATE 4:00 PM: Police called me back. See new post.
Meantime, any thoughts from out there? Any Edina parents had to talk this through with your kids? How'd it go?
Posted at 3:54 PM on April 22, 2009
by Jeff Horwich
KMSP Fox 9 says the Edina police "erroneously" informed school officials that an unmarked KMSP child-cruising 2004 Ford Explorer would be on the streets of Edina between 2 and 4:30 pm Tuesday, asking children "for directions" to test their "Don't-Talk-To-Strangers" skillz.
If the planned story had been carried out as widely perceived, it's arguably an...ill-conceived journalistic concept. Parents, anyway, freaked out when the principal sent an email about the plans. (KMSP's news peg: There was an alleged abduction attempt in Edina last week.)
Just returned to my desk to find a statement from Edina police chief Mike Siitari. Here it is, verbatim:
The information we put out was accurate and was provided by KMSP 9 to us. Our deputy chief called to advise them after the initial call that this was not a good idea. And at no point did they tell us this was only a plan...The specific vehicle, times, and so forth, we got from them.
So whether it's poor communication, or an "about-face" by KMSP 9 after the email went out and the angry parents called in, I do not know. But we put out accurate information, we stand by our actions. We think we did the right thing in notifying the community especially after the previous incident.
Speaks for itself. I suppose now you need to choose who to believe: The police chief, or your local Fox affiliate. Truth-O-Meter SAYS....
How do I know? But it's a good case study for an improptu journalism ethics discussion. And as luck would have it, our discussion's been picked up by the illustrious Romenesko blog at the Poynter Institute.
The questions remain unanswered.
The reporter involved, Trish van Pilsim, hasn't shown much interest in our posts (shucks) but has taken things up with David Brauer over at MinnPost.