In the Loop

"To Catch a Pr-" (strike that) "To BE a Predator..."

Posted at 5:36 PM on April 21, 2009 by Jeff Horwich (35 Comments)

Beware Explorers Bearing Reporters.
(image via Wikipedia Commons)
A friend of ours in Edina (a western Minneapolis burb, for readers outside the area) called in with an interesting tip this afternoon. We're not normally much of a breaking news blog, but here goes. See what you make of this:

So, there was an attempted child abduction in Edina last week. As a way of advancing...illustrating...dramatizing...the story, our local Fox affiliate KMSP Fox 9 had a provocative journalistic notion:

Cruise the streets in an unmarked SUV after school lets out, and see if young kids walking down the street will respond to you.

Evidently the KMSP news-cruiser/pedophile-mobile was out this afternoon (UPDATE 4/23: Not exactly, we now know. See this new post.) Parents and school officials are just a leeettle upset. The parent who called me said he was trying to get a restraining order against KMSP. Here's part of an email that went to parents this afternoon from Cornelia Elementary School Principal Chris Holden. Nice use of dramatic quotation marks in the first line:

This message details information about a "news" story KMSP Fox 9 will be "creating". Thanks...

Molly Anderson of the Edina Police Department just informed the district that KMSP Fox 9 will be driving around Edina neighborhoods between 2:00-4:30 p.m. today to "ask children for directions." She indicated that the reporter, Trish Van Pilsim will be driving a 2004 silver Ford Explorer or Expedition.

The police indicated while there is nothing illegal with this, they do not endorse this activity.

Please remind our children that they are not to speak with strangers. They should walk, and if necessary, run away from a vehicle if they are asked to get into the car, the car follows, them, etc. They should seek out an adult they know, go to a house they are familiar with, etc. Safety first!

Got a call in to the KMSP newsroom (around 5 pm) to see if they've got a statement on it. Someone is supposed to get back to me.

This raises questions a-plenty. As a parent myself, I can understand the anger. Suppose my kid knows just how terrible a prospect it might be to be approached by a stranger in a car. Being the target of the unmarked KMSP SUV could be really traumatic, terrifying.

Suppose my son doesn't get it, and makes the mistake of talking with the reporter. Lesson learned, I guess. But should he be...punished? Ashamed? Forgiven because someone was just trying to use him in the first place? For parents, this is kind of a no-win situation, and your kid could wind up scared and confused either way.

On the other organizations can do anything within the law to get "the story," however they define that. If kids (in Edina) on the whole are all too willing to engage with a friendly-seeming stranger, perhaps that's newsworthy. I'm no legal expert, and I don't know exactly where the law draws a line here. The streets and sidewalks are public; but I also know that filming underage kids and putting them on the air without their parents' permission is a dicey journalistic and legal proposition.

Thanks to our tipster for the tip.

Thoughts? I'll bet you've got some.

UPDATE 6:45 PM: KMSP has reportedly pulled the story after reaction from parents. In communication with school officials, the station says that they actually only intended to talk with children with their parents' permission. ??? Gotta say, that doesn't make any sense. But there you have it.

UPDATE 4/23: This topic has spawned three more posts so far. Read on.

Comments (35)

I think the worst case scenario here is that next week there's a pedophile trolling the streets of Edina trying to convince kids to talk to him by promising that they'll be on TV.

Posted by Ellen Crain | April 21, 2009 6:13 PM

I agree with Ellen. It's probably a good thing that they pulled the story, but, now that the idea is out there, I'm sure some sicko will use the "It's OK, I'm just an undercover TV reporter" trick....

Posted by Matthew R. Perrine | April 21, 2009 8:59 PM

Hmmm. I think this should bother people more...

I'm pretty sure KMSP is somehow allowed to engage in activity (circling a block and asking kids for directions) that would get anybody else a lifetime on the sex offender registry. NOT ILLEGAL?!?! They arrest people for this kind of behavior every day.

And they're exploiting random kids for profit to boot.

Yay. I love the tolerance and support the American middle-class gives to these jerks. ::sarcastic eyeroll::

Makes one wonder how many of those angry parents will "wake up with FOX 9" tomorrow. I'll bet quite a few do.

Posted by Moo | April 21, 2009 9:24 PM

Clearly over-the-line behavior on the part of KMSP. We should know who dreamed up this idea and what if anything station management intends to do about consequences.

Kids should not be exploited for profit even if they are on a public sidewalk.

This is bad "journalism" and worse adult behavior. Can we expect reporters to set fires and attempt to interview first responders?


Posted by George | April 21, 2009 9:49 PM

Good job picking up on this, Jeff.

Posted by Jeff Kiger | April 22, 2009 9:47 AM

I swear, I thought turkeys could fly... ;-)

Posted by David W. | April 22, 2009 3:51 PM

WHY are the parents mad at the station? They should be mad at themselves for not beating the don't talk to strangers rule into their kids heads!

Posted by Chris R. | April 23, 2009 11:06 AM

That vehicle in the photo is an Expedition, not an Explorer.

Posted by Murphy | April 23, 2009 11:09 AM

I don't understand why people have a problem with this. Yes reporters are typically scum bags and while their motivations for this behavior may be awful the result itself isn't. Being asked for directions to see if a child will respond to strangers IS NOT a traumatic experience. Being abducted is. If this test is conducted the kids who ignore the stranger, ignore the stranger, end of story. But if they don't, the children will find out what they are doing is not safe. So maybe one day when someone is actually out looking for children to prey on, that child will know what to do. I'm sick of these of over protective parents with a completely warped idea of what is traumatic or damaging to a child. As a parent what would you rather have happen, your child gets tested by a reporter and learns a lesson, or gets abducted and scarred for life by physical and sexual abuse?

Posted by Eric | April 23, 2009 11:28 AM

I think I'll be driving around in the KMSP parking lot, in a cargo van, to see how they respond. These idiots were absolutely positive they were going to be the next ones hit on 9-11. The "talent" believed they were such an important fixture of the country that the Eden Prairie newsroom was going to be target #4 after the Pentagon. (I was there every day putting up with their "critical security measures.")

Posted by Jim R | April 23, 2009 11:29 AM

I think KMSP should try this in all the neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. That way, the pedophiles will know which neighborhoods offer the best chances. Maybe they could rank each neighborhood based on how many children seem vulnerable so our local sex offenders can ply their trade more efficiently.

Good work, KMSP! This kind of crap is exactly why I don't watch and have no respect for TV news.

Posted by Melissa | April 23, 2009 11:35 AM

I keep seeing people saying "Oh these journalist are terrible and will do anything for a story" But look at it this way. What if you talked to your kids about not talking to strangers, gave them all the scenarios, told them the right things and yet they still talked to the undercover news crew? Forgive me if I'm wrong but wouldn't that make any parent feel like they "failed"[can't think of a better word] somewhere? It would be embarassing if your child did the exact opposite of what you told them andit ended up on the news. I like this idea the news team had and think it can be a real eye opener for the schools.

Posted by Liz | April 23, 2009 11:35 AM

Why does the fact that this was an idea from a FOX News affiliate not surprise me? Horace van der Gelder was right: "Ninety-five percent of the people in the world are idiots and I am in grave danger of contamination."

Posted by Nick | April 23, 2009 11:46 AM

Reminds me of this story in Philly a few years back where a tv station lured pedophiles to a quaint neighborhood, a la To Catch a Predator (by posing as young kids on the interenet, of course!). Only problem is, they didn't tell the police. So tons of pedophiles are brought to the neighborhood, and after being humiliated on tv (not live), they leave...back into the neighborhood....

Posted by Mike | April 23, 2009 12:15 PM

Surprisingly it's not actually illegal to ask a child for directions.

Nor is it traumatic for a child to be asked for directions.

It is illegal to pull a child into a vehicle and assault them, but if I read the intentions of the Station correctly, they didn't intend to do this.

In short, how about a little perspective?

A truck rolls down a street and slows down near a walking kid.
The person in the truck rolls down the window and says "Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to ___"
The kid either says "I don't talk to strangers" or "Sure it's right down there."

Truck rolls away.

It's time we stopped throwing the word Pedophile at anyone who -talks- to a child and reserve it for people who actually HARM a child.

Posted by al | April 23, 2009 12:15 PM

Hey, if it makes one parent aware that their kid might talk to a stranger and prevents one kid from being kidmapped - go for it.

It's all well and good for a kid to tell you over a nice dinner safely at home that they know not to talk to strangers. It's another thing to test them and see what happens.

After Tammy Belanger (NH) went missing my parents had a co-worker come and try to get me to go to their car. Just to make sure how I would react.

I don't see the problem with this.

Posted by Michelle | April 23, 2009 12:24 PM

You Americans are paranoid and you use your neurosis to justify any crazy and stupid action that your paranoia leads you to.
If you want your children to be 100% safe, just lock them up in your house and never let them go out, ever.
Sane people realize that living entails some risk and to live well you need to properly determine the level of risk.
Getting abducted by a stranger off of the street is one of those extremely unlikely things that need to be put in perspective. You're much more likely to get killed in a car accident or to get hit by lighting, so if stranger abduction is your biggest worry then it makes even more sense to get rid of your car, and never go outside.

Posted by Poester | April 23, 2009 12:34 PM

I do believe I watched a scene like this play out on a sitcom (King of Queens? Everyone Love Raymond? something like that).
Point is, it wasn't a good idea.

I totally agree with Moo, if any other person(s) were driving around asking children for directions they would be viewed as suspicious and the police would be called.

If the journalists want to get footage of children being asked for directions why not hire child actors, or get their niece/nephew/children to do the segment? The public would never know the difference and it would save the community a lot of anguish.

One last thing, to everyone who thinks this isn't a big deal...just because someone might not be getting hurt physically or emotionally, that doesn't make it right. Setting someone up, whether its a child or an adult, with the goal of personal achievement is called a scam, and the people who run these scams are called con-artist. We already have to be on the look out for 'pyramid' scams, 'extended insurance' scams, 'work from home and make money' scams...we don't need to add 'for the sake of journalism' to that list.

Posted by Jennifer | April 23, 2009 12:46 PM

Fox "News"

Another low for Fox. Amazing.

Posted by Brian | April 23, 2009 12:55 PM

It seems to me that both sides of this situation are wrong and can learn from each other's concerns.

I agree that putting this type of situation on TV could lead to more kids in the cities thinking that the next vehicle that looks similar may be another undercover TV reporter and you will be on the news. So, don't put it on the news. The TV station is wrong and never should have even thought of airing such a thing. While I see that it could communicate to the masses about this problem, it is wrong to put this in their heads that if some stranger comes up to them in a SUV or van, it's their chance to brag to their friends of their "15 minutes of fame" on TV.

However, the idea is important and should be practiced every now and then. Why doesn't Edina, or any city for that matter, send an undercover COP in plainclothes, normal vehicle to "test" and see how children react? If the parents confront the officer, the cop has them call 911 in front of them after showing his badge number and 911 informs them that the specific officer is conducting a field test on the children within the city. Then PD creates a report and has it dispursed to these parents of the children in schools within that city only. Just an idea...something similar should happen anyways.

While there are many valid points above, you have to realize that children should know and be taught of being alone without an adult and that there ARE "scary" people out there everywhere who might want to hurt them, but as long as they react the right way, they will be fine.

Just my two cents

Posted by nick | April 23, 2009 1:11 PM

Actually... ""station says that they actually only intended to talk with children with their parents' permission. ??? Gotta say, that doesn't make any sense. But there you have it"" ... makes perfect sense and they should have done that first.

How so? Well, as a parent, what would you say if they came to you first and then said 'look, we want to see if your kid will come up to us if we call etc.etc. would you have a problem with that or would you like to know what your kid would do?'

Seems reasonable to me that they should have went about it that way first. Most parents would want to know what their kid would do.

Posted by Dick | April 23, 2009 1:41 PM

I am a mother of two and a very protective one at that but I think that it is a good lesson for parents to learn. 20/20, dateline have done these stories many times. a lot of the times the children do go with to help find a lost puppy or take candy Etc. I see nothing wrong with showing parents that there child may not be as stranger wise as they thought. Really a lot of the times us parents are to blame for not teaching them on a consistent basis of stranger danger. It is not only the schools job to teach it is ours and just like cleaning there room children need a reminder on safety that is our unfortunate world we live in these days and the news station should be patted on the back for seeing kids reactions. People are mad because they do not want to look bad if there kid is the one who gave directions. I work at a school and see a lot of kids. All I have to say is wake up parents. I know I have.

Posted by Tina | April 23, 2009 1:48 PM

"but I also know that filming underage kids and putting them on the air without their parents' permission is a dicey journalistic and legal proposition."

Ummm ... as long as a person - child or adult - is in a public place with no reasonable expectation of privacy, anyone can photograph or video them completely within the law, as long as the photographer is also on public property (or their own property). A bit creepy, yes, but there's no law against photographing or video-ing people in public places, as much as you may not like it.

I'm not saying that this is a good idea, just saying that it's not against the law.

Posted by eric | April 23, 2009 2:20 PM

There is absolutely nothing wrong with driving around asking kids for directions. When did this become illegal? Those of you who have a problem with this are just complete morons. Crawl out of your bubble and see what the real world holds.

Your child cannot and should not be sheltered from everything. They need to know that the world is a cruel place. Mommy and daddy are not going to be holding their hand their whole life. This feeds into the whole belief that the government should bail you out of a mortgage that you cannot afford. You think someone should hold your hand as you step through life. Well guess what, you deserve to be foreclosed on if you were dumb enough to get yourself in a mess.

Posted by The Man | April 23, 2009 2:50 PM

When my girls were younger I saw a report on TV similar to this. They had an older "trusting" looking man walk around and ask children to "help find his lost dog", it was amazing how many kids went with him! Seeing that on TV really opened my eyes and the door to many great conversations with my girls.

Posted by Charlotte | April 23, 2009 3:12 PM

oh grow up people, now go make me a sammich!

Posted by Al Bundy | April 23, 2009 4:56 PM

I think highly consolidated media structures are an excellent idea. They ensure that these kind of fine things happen on a regular basis.

Posted by Steve Hunt | April 23, 2009 7:37 PM

It would be nice to Trish Van Pilsim's side of the story. After all, she was only trying to boost Fox revenue by selling more advertisements via a sensationalised beat up. There. I said it.

Posted by Betty Wanker | April 23, 2009 11:51 PM

I just realized something. No real man asks anybody for directions, let alone a kid. Why would anyone expect a child to know how to get to anything? My kids can't find their left sneaker half the time, let alone the way to the Metrocentre.

Posted by Nick | April 24, 2009 10:47 AM

Illegal? No.
Stupid? Yeah.
Why not go cover the news?
Oh, yeah, too much work.

Posted by NewsMom | April 27, 2009 10:36 AM

since most children who are molested, etc. are victims of a family member or family friend, not a stranger, folks should be more concerned at teaching their children how to deal with those situations. i've explained to my son that if he ever feels funny about someone, but doesn't know why, not to dismiss it. kids have trouble admitting (even to themselves) that what a person close to them is doing, someone that they care about, is wrong. it's a lot easier for a kid to learn to be scared of strangers than to report someone they love.

Posted by DK | April 27, 2009 11:55 AM

Props to sXephil of Youtube for making this a story.

Posted by MaxMan | April 27, 2009 9:38 PM

if the child was raised poorly and DOES indeed go to the unmarked Car the at least parents know they have more teaching to do.
Also, the pervs on the street know that everyone in the area knows what they are up too.

Posted by Wendy | April 28, 2009 3:57 PM

The only good thing that would of come out of this story - if a kid DID talk to the reporter, and the parent saw it - perhaps some good footage of the parent beating up the reporter for trying to take his/her child - now THAT woulda made a good story!

Posted by Chris | April 28, 2009 10:37 PM

Well then, next time they decide to do this, I'm sure all the pedophiles will be driving the same kind of vehicle. "Hey kids, we're the news guys again, this time we need you to get in the van!"

Seriously.. Doing crap like that is something a little dangerous... Did they stop to think that maybe some kind of child rapist would immitate them and even pretend to be them for their next unsuspecting victim?

In all honesty, though, this is definitely not the brightest idea.. Definitely don't need kids thinking some creepy vans are filled with friendly newsmen, especially when the creeps can just say they are now..

Congrats, though, you gave those freaks a new pickup line to use on kids. "We're with the news!"
I hope it doesn't keep you up at night wondering if some poor kid is being raped because they believed some pedophile when he said he was doing something for the news.

Posted by Carlos | April 30, 2009 8:56 PM

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