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Amber alert: Fox9’s judgment abducted

Tuesday, In the Loop’s Jeff Horwich unearthed an honest-to-goodness media jawdropper:

Evidently 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 is pursuing 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. 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.

Jeff then quoted an Edina schools email similar to one a reader forwarded me last night:

Molly Anderson of the Edina Police Department just informed me 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 [sic] 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!

We are disappointed that the media would use children in this manner.

Doug Johnson
Director of Community Education Services

“Disappointed” is far too polite, Doug — this is sensationalist crap even by TV news standards. What’s next, putting a razor blade in a Halloween apple and see if kids take it? Going online and pretending to be a pedophile?

As Horwich astutely notes, “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.”

In the Strib this morning, Neal Justin provides the station’s explanation:

Fox officials insist that the story never left the planning stages and that if it had gone forward, they would have gotten parental permission before approaching any children.

Perhaps bound by space limitations or the constraints of objective reporting, Justin doesn’t connect the dots, but Horwich does:

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.

And indeed, it doesn’t.

You tell the cops —but not the schools directly — that you’re cruising and claim you had a plan to contact parents. And how the hell would Van Pilsum know which random nipper is attached to which mom and dad?

“Hey kid, we’d like to ask you directions but could you give us your parents’ phone number so we can ask permission first?”

I guess this shows Fox9 is not only amoral, but inane. Good work by Horwich.

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Comments (44)

  1. Submitted by Justin Heideman on 04/22/2009 - 09:52 am.

    While Fox9 is certainly wrong in this case, telling your kids to never talk to strangers is a bad policy. Local security guru Bruce Schneier explains:

    When I was growing up, children were commonly taught: “don’t talk to strangers.” Strangers might be bad, we were told, so it’s prudent to steer clear of them.

    And yet most people are honest, kind, and generous, especially when someone asks them for help. If a small child is in trouble, the smartest thing he can do is find a nice-looking stranger and talk to him.

    In other words: Tell your kids not to talk to child molesters or weirdos (which applies here, no one is crazier than Fox), but tell them DO talk to a stranger if they need help.

  2. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 04/22/2009 - 09:57 am.

    You can put a GPS in your news cruiser, but you can’t buy a moral compass.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/22/2009 - 10:08 am.

    Chill out, talking to a kid from a SUV IS NOT harmful in any way. Please try to contain the parent hysteria just a little. This is a stupid story idea, not a dangerous one.

  4. Submitted by William Souder on 04/22/2009 - 10:20 am.

    This bizarre notion of newsgathering calls into question the station’s judgment not just on this one story but on all stories. What kind thinking goes on in a news huddle that results in a plan to ambush and terrorize young children? Do these morons not have kids? Or common sense? Was the idea to see how many kids would run away…say, into the street?

  5. Submitted by Tom Horner on 04/22/2009 - 10:25 am.

    Sorry, this goes beyond just being a stupid story idea. It exploits kids for no purpose other than to drive audience ratings and it puts people claiming to be intelligent adults in the position of forcing young children to choose between following parental directions and responding to a request for help. While it is good to see the moral outrage over this Ch 9 story, it’s disappointing that there isn’t more condemnation for a news outlet that every week — and often, several times a week — trashes any semblance of journalistic integrity and fair reporting.

  6. Submitted by andrew happel on 04/22/2009 - 10:37 am.

    indeed, regardless of whether or not doing such a thing would be dangerous, it isn’t journalism. this would be more like a poorly executed child psychology experiment being conducted by high schoolers.

    after moving into an area where i have the option of seeing fox9 on tv, (an option i have not exercised) i must say i have not been surprised that, as a tv station labeled with the “fox” moniker, it seems every other night the primary “story” or “news” being pitched in the ads for the nightly news is something that has far more to do with ratings via fear-mongering than actual news.

  7. Submitted by John Olson on 04/22/2009 - 10:54 am.

    Wow. Completely agree with Nick, William and Tom.

    Are the newsies at Fox9 *that* obsessed with ratings so much so that common sense disappears when they walk through the door at work?

    Sorry Paul, but if you slow to a crawl or stop in your SUV to try to talk to my kid, his instructions from Mom and Dad are simple: move away unless it is a marked police squad, fire or ambulance. If you are a plainclothes, you darn well better have that badge on your person.

    I would expect nothing less if it was me in my SUV and it was your kid.

    Justin, I don’t disagree with the premise but a child’s ability (esp. younger ones) to decide whether or not the guy in the $500 suit is a child molester or not is a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?

  8. Submitted by Brian Rose on 04/22/2009 - 11:25 am.

    Anyone who has any sense of right & wrong would know that this is the wrong approach for a news crew to take. Tell them to report the news not make the news and if they go through with this then they just lost one viewer for life!

  9. Submitted by Daniel Munson on 04/22/2009 - 11:37 am.

    I think it’s sad that more people aren’t outraged by this. It should never have gotten beyond the “I have this idea for a story” stage.

  10. Submitted by Jim O'Donnell on 04/22/2009 - 11:57 am.

    KMSP is in a league of its own when it comes to awful journalism but local broadcast news shows on any of the stations don’t have much to offer. As an old J grad, I play a little game when I occasionally watch the 10 pm news. Take a show’s first 2-3 news items and guess where in the next morning’s paper they may be (what section, page, and # of paragraphs). The results can be surprising if you can find the “news” items at all. Newspapers, particularly today, clearly have some content issues, but the state of local broadcast news is not good.

  11. Submitted by Trish VanPilsum on 04/22/2009 - 11:58 am.

    One would think that a columnist who adopts such a holier-than-thou journalistic tone would, at the very least, attempt to meet the most basic standard of reporting, which is to get the facts correct. David, your column is riddled with errors. A simple call or email to me, or any of the parties involved, would have helped you tell an accurate story.

  12. Submitted by David Brauer on 04/22/2009 - 12:14 pm.

    Trish – fair enough. I was working off the station’s statement given to two news organizations.

    I will call this afternoon, but in the meantime, feel free to detail the errors here rather than merely allege them. I’m happy to follow up.

  13. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 04/22/2009 - 12:16 pm.

    Well, Trish, give us the facts here. We’d like to know the truth.

  14. Submitted by Ross Williams on 04/22/2009 - 12:34 pm.

    “I guess this shows Fox9 is not only amoral, but inane”

    Tthe claim that they were going to ask parents isn’t “inane”. They aren’t that stupid. It is an obvious lie.

    But this is just stupid, not dangerous. Kids do get asked for directions and they mostly know enough to keep their distance. Of course, they wouldn’t show any of those kids on the evening news. I am sure they would at least get some footage they could cut to make it look like a kid might have been in danger. With a breathless voice over it would have served its purpose.

  15. Submitted by Brad Lundell on 04/22/2009 - 12:50 pm.

    A Fox news affiliate trying to be sensationalistic? Alert the media! Oh. . .wait.

  16. Submitted by Jane McClure on 04/22/2009 - 12:56 pm.

    Much as I like many of the Fox 9 reporters I’ve crossed paths with (and helped with local history pieces), this just seems like an incredibly dumb and bad idea. I’m with many of you on this but especially Tom – the explotation of kids for the sake of news is really troubling.
    I have lived and worked in neighborhoods where kids really don’t get the attention they deserve – money, parental issues, whatever. When I edited North End News/Frogtown Times and we worked out of a community center, we had a whole flock of little rec center children who really had no place else to go after school. Our newspaper, through some odd nonprofit arrangement, was the conduit so the kids could get after-school snacks from Second Harvest. (I don’t see Fox doing THAT)
    If anyone had targeted any of our kids for the sake of a so-called story, I’d be raising all kinds of hell.
    It’s stupid and it’s terribly unfair to kids. . . and I just said THAT in a breathless voice.

  17. Submitted by John Olson on 04/22/2009 - 01:16 pm.


    When your colleagues offer up a statement that is picked up by two news organizations and you (as the reporter) go after the guy who is reporting what your colleagues gave him, you should be going after your coworkers, not Brauer.

    Save the snarkiness for them. That would appear to be where the factual errors lie.

  18. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 04/22/2009 - 01:20 pm.

    Wow FOX News doing something stupid..I’ll have to mark that one on my calendar.
    How long before some pedophile decides to play news guy in a Van..?
    Beyond ignorant… GiGi

  19. Submitted by Tom Horner on 04/22/2009 - 01:45 pm.

    Eagerly awaiting KMSP’s side of the story per VanPilsum’s posting, although it seems as if Jeff Horwich’s piece on MPR was thoroughly reported.

  20. Submitted by Ted Snyder on 04/22/2009 - 02:19 pm.

    Unbelievable. Local news coverge has eroded badly in the last twenty years, but this is a new low. What kind of judgement leads KMSP to organize this stunt? Having someone crusing and accosting childen to make a point also rasies the tension levels in these neighborhoods. Pointless, should be prosecutable just because the stupidity displayed.

  21. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/22/2009 - 02:32 pm.

    Talking to kids from an SUV is terrorism? Hysteria plain and simple, and typical of todays parents. Are the kids being exploited? Sure the are, but if you want to do down that road let’s talk about everyone else and all the circumstances kids are exploited. Do you really think your kids comments on the hockey game they just played is news? Are your kids comments on whatever tragedy has befallen the school or a classmate news? Whenever you see your kids on the TV for anything, it’s about ratings folks, nothing else.

    Speaking of news, we’re talking about local news channels, they don’t do news anyways. Standing in the dark “live” ten hours after something happened isn’t news. I think they devote what? three minutes of every broadcast to news, the rest is special interest, weather, and sports.

    This is a stupid idea, one of many that will air this week and every week. Did you see Amelia sitting around drinking wine with a few friends talking about Face Book? You want news? Watch the BBC on Channel 2. The more local channels scramble for ratings, the more bereft of news they are. I’d say once or twice every two weeks, one of the channels actually does something newsworthy. Channel 11 did a series a while back on the banks and the mortgage crises that was actually very good. That’s the only one that comes to my mind at the moment.

  22. Submitted by rachel sheridan on 04/22/2009 - 02:42 pm.

    TV news is SO pathetic!

    Did you see WCCO late news last night? Don Shelby was pushing three products on the air.

    Whatever happened to actual news?

  23. Submitted by Jeff Horwich on 04/22/2009 - 02:58 pm.

    Trouble is, both organizations in a position to offer any clarity have totally clammed up (see my latest post for what mysteries seem to be left here).

    My bizarre conversation with the designated Fox spokeswoman (in New York City?) this morning answered nothing. Not only would she not address anything beyond the cryptic statement — she wouldn’t even let me use her name. Weird (especially for a media organization).

    And for some reason the Edina police won’t call back to confirm whether they jumped the gun, as KMSP suggests. Imagine they’re not crazy about getting in a pissing match with a local news station.

    All we’re left with is a very provocative idea for a story, which got parents riled before David and I got on the scene, and an explanation that so far doesn’t add up.

  24. Submitted by Tom Horner on 04/22/2009 - 03:08 pm.

    I guess all we are left with is eager anticipation for KMSP’s sweeps month story in which it burns down a home to explore the personal side of homelessness.

  25. Submitted by Jeff Horwich on 04/22/2009 - 04:20 pm.

    Edina police chief called me back. He ain’t copping to nuthin’:

  26. Submitted by Tom Horner on 04/22/2009 - 04:26 pm.

    Don’t stereotype. Some of us drive Japanese luxury cars.

  27. Submitted by Chris Olwell on 04/22/2009 - 04:39 pm.

    Trish set the tattered remains of her credibility on fire with that post. Let’s see some evidence.

    Nice work, Jeff and David.

  28. Submitted by William Malo on 04/22/2009 - 06:05 pm.

    …waiting for Trish…

  29. Submitted by David Brauer on 04/22/2009 - 06:44 pm.

    William, et. al. —

    Trish and I talked late Wednesday afternoon, so she’s off the hook for now. I have to run off to a community meeting tonight, but will post either later this evening or early tomorrow morning.

  30. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 04/22/2009 - 10:01 pm.

    So moral of the story is that David wrote a story about a story that was unproved. Nice work. Is this the opinion section? Can anyone actually find a child that was questioned. A bad idea is a bad idea, but without execution it is just that, a bad idea. This is starting to make the Strib look credible, angry lib makes statement to angry lib = news.

  31. Submitted by Brian Rose on 04/22/2009 - 10:16 pm.

    Well if Trish is off the hook then you’re on the hook for bad reporting. Maybe I’ll stop reading this blog.

  32. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 04/22/2009 - 10:41 pm.

    I agree with Brian. David needs to work on reporting.

  33. Submitted by David Brauer on 04/22/2009 - 10:42 pm.

    Brian – it’s a free country.

    When I wrote she was off the hook, I meant she *has* given me her side and I have to free up the time to complete the story. It’s 10:40 p.m. and I’m back at it.

  34. Submitted by Rick Linsk on 04/22/2009 - 10:51 pm.

    To Jeff Horwich, re #23 (“she wouldn’t even let me use her name”): Wouldn’t let you? You have a choice in the matter. Name her. What’s she going to do to you? Not call back? What’s the loss, given that she didn’t say anything anyway? If the media refuses to play along, these self-important flacks will drop that crap.

    (Apologies for the issue drift here.)

  35. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 04/22/2009 - 11:02 pm.

    Oddly enough, I’d be curious as to what percentage of kids would unwittingly be easy victims for a predator. It is probably a lot higher than most parents would want to believe. But it probably would be smarter to just cruise by the Star Tribune and ask employees coming out of work how much longer they think that they’ll have jobs. Or maybe cruise by the police station and ask various officers if they’ve ever planted a gun at a crime scene. Maybe the T.V. station could cruise by the capitol and ask the legislators if they think that they will adjourn on time this year. The list is so long…

  36. Submitted by Trish Van Pilsum on 04/22/2009 - 11:49 pm.

    Here is the problem I have with David’s column. He reported that FOX 9 drove around Edina asking kids for directions as part of a story. That is not true. It never happened. It is just one method we discussed as part of a story illustrating that kids are not as prepared as parents often think they are to deal with the issue of strangers. It was never our intent to approach kids without the permission of parents. We did talk with Edina police about this realizing that even if we worked with parents on such a scenario, a passerby might raise questions. A deputy chief expressed his concerns that, no matter how carefully executed, a test of this kind might be upsetting because of the recent incident there. We took those concerns to heart, although several parents, including some from Edina, had previously told us they would be interested in knowing how their children would respond. We also discussed among our staff our own concerns that it would be too difficult to locate parents ahead of time. We considered the impact on all the stakeholders as well as our goal to minimize harm in any story we do, even if the overall goal of the story is to achieve a greater awareness of a pubic safety issue. We decided not to go any further with that part of the story. That decision was made hours before school officials sent parents the inaccurate information that we were driving through the neighborhoods and hours before parents began contacting the station. The school district has ackowledged it should have checked with me first. As has David Brauer.

  37. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 04/23/2009 - 12:34 am.

    What ever happened to old fashion journalism ethics? Fox 9 should be censured for its idiotic approach to this story.

    It’s bad enough we have pedophiles roaming our neighborhoods but to have journalistic intervention or intrusion in the form of reputable[?] journalists cruising for kids to approach is insane and unethical.

    Staking out troubled neighborhoods, where pedophiles hang-out, is one thing, but, directly being part of the story is unacceptable and immoral.

    If I saw that unmarked [KMSP] SUV stopping by kids and looking that suspicious; first I call “911”, then pull out my Nikons for photos for the AP and then police. Now that would a great story from the old school ‘j-school’ textbook. [It wouldn’t be ‘sensationalistic crap’ either.]

    I know, from personal experience, what makes a good/great story scoop. Being an independent correspondent and photographer, I was as good as my last story and/or photo. I could be first to break a story but I always had to be rock-solid, factually correct and solidly, righteously [ethically] sourced.

    Today’s new blogosphere, mass media, and techno journalists leave the Fourth Estate lacking in virtues and ethical panache. Maybe, they should go back to j-school and refresh themselves with the teachings of the wise mentors and methods of the old school.

    What has happened with Fox 9 News seems to becoming a norm instead of aberration. No wonder folks rate lawyers ahead of journalists. They know what to expect from lawyers!

  38. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/23/2009 - 07:48 am.

    Nothing could be ‘fina’ than a camera in Edina stalking a sick idea.

    This is media voyeurism; a caricature of what-is-news…and speaks more about the feral nature of the fox as resource than the hen groping for news.

    Exploiting the child is either naive, or arrogant, tabloid-style dumpster diving… for a ‘story’?

  39. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/23/2009 - 09:04 am.

    Ms. Pilsum,

    If I understand your position correctly, your complaining about being criticized for something you didn’t actually do. Fair enough.

    I think the complaint though isn’t that you drove around trying to talk to kids from an SUV, my complaint at least is that you considered doing it in the first place. I frankly don’t see the harm or potential harm that others are worried about, my problem is that this simply isn’t news. In this case you are not covering news you would be creating news (which ironically you did even thought you chose not to go ahead with the exercise). As far as I can see there is no actual story here, your team was just trying to tap into parental hysteria (which is abundant) for ratings. Sometimes when you play with the bull you get the horns.

    What exactly was the story here? That kids sometimes talk to strangers? If you ask kids for directions sometimes they’ll give them to you? If you drive around Edina in an SUV some kids will talk to you?

    This has nothing to do with child safety in any event because in the real world we don’t know everyone, most people are strangers, and that’s the same world kids live in. I hate to break it to you but kids are people to, and like all of us they have to deal with strangers on occasion, and 99.9999% of the strangers they come across are harmless. Do I really need point out for the millionth time that less than 10
    % of child abductions are stranger abductions, and 90% of molesters are NOT strangers but friends and family? And just because a kid talks to a stranger doesn’t mean their on some potential victim list, there’s a big difference between talking to a stranger and getting in a strangers car.

    And what are you going to do with this story anyways? You think you can tell parents how to keep their kids safe? Sorry, beyond banal common sense you’ve got nothing to offer here. No child is a match for the few skilled pedophiles who target children like this, some days are just not good days, even for children, are you going to tell parents that? I doubt it.

    There are real stories and actual news out there. Maybe someone should try covering that and see what to ratings… just a thought.

  40. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/23/2009 - 09:45 am.

    Yeah, the next thing you know someone will write a “comedy skit” about rape.

    Well, on second thought, no one would be *that* warped, would they?

  41. Submitted by Betsey Porter on 04/23/2009 - 09:52 am.

    Trish says above: “He reported that FOX 9 drove around Edina asking kids for directions as part of a story”

    I’m sorry, I cannot locate this section in the above post. Can you clarify what you mean? Nowhere in the blog does David say Fox 9 or Ms VP was driving around. Maybe SHE can clarify HER comments.

  42. Submitted by chris hatch on 04/23/2009 - 11:32 am.

    @Rick Linsk

    actually if someone says you can’t use their name and you continue the interview, it is considered a legally binding contract and they could sue you for doing it.

  43. Submitted by Rick Linsk on 04/23/2009 - 12:08 pm.

    To Chris (#43), that’s incorrect. Contracts 101: A contract requires a meeting of the minds between the parties. If I never agree to such a deal, there is no binding contract. Now, granted, if I somehow manifest agreement by my actions, maybe the Fox flack could persuade a jury to find an implied agreement. But I don’t think the mere act of continuing the interview implies agreement.

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