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Fox9’s Van Pilsum: Edina officials, media critics got ‘cruising’ story wrong

I had a lengthy debrief with Fox9 reporter Trish Van Pilsum, who provided her side of the “child-luring” story I ripped earlier. Here’s what she had to say.

Had a lengthy debrief Wednesday afternoon with Fox9 reporter Trish Van Pilsum, who provided her side of the “child-luring” story I ripped earlier in the day.

To recap:

Last week, there was an alleged attempted child abduction in Edina. Tuesday, based on information from the city’s police, the Edina school emailed parents that a Fox9 crew “will be driving around Edina neighborhoods between 2:00-4:30 p.m. today to ‘ask children for directions.’ … the reporter, Trish Van Pilsim [sic] will be driving a 2004 silver Ford Explorer or Expedition.”

Outraged parents emailed the media, and critics such as yours truly ripped Fox9 as even more debased than thought possible.

Van Pilsum says we got it flat wrong. She says Fox9 never cruised Edina’s streets, as MPR’s Jeff Horwich wrote when the story broke late Tuesday afternoon. She also disputes the notion that Fox9 “pulled the story” after public complaints; she says her team had its own doubts and nixed the idea long before the schools’ email became public.

Finally, she demands a correction from me, for reinforcing the error that she actually cruised the streets and for being baffled by the station’s claim that they’d contact parents first. I can’t give her satisfaction — my original piece included the station’s position that the cruising never occurred, and I still can’t imagine how the parental notification would work. (As you’ll soon see, Fox9 had trouble with this, too.)

That said, I agree with another Van Pilsum criticism: that I failed as a reporter for relying on Fox9’s vague official statement and the Strib’s distillation of Fox9’s position. I shouldn’t have stopped at the corporate stiff-arm — especially after ripping the station as “amoral” and labeling explanations “inane.” While I still find the idea hare-brained and question its rollout, I owe Van Pilsum a fuller airing.

Parents’ idea
Van Pilsum’s version begins with a head-snapper. The idea that seems so clueless to many a parent — ride around in an unmarked car seeing if kids would talk to strangers — actually came from Edina parents, she says.

Before the SUV idea was floated, Van Pilsum says Fox9 had already talked to kids in the city’s parks. Parental pre-approval was mandatory, she insists, explaining it this way: “You simply walk up to parents, say ‘I’m with Channel 9 doing a story on some recent incidents, and we’re trying to see how kids will respond to strangers.'”

She contends that “99 percent” of the parents said yes because even though they think their kids “are rock-solid, they won’t go with you,” they craved a controlled test. “And parents were grateful,” she adds.

But some felt the park effort “wasn’t really a test,” Van Pilsum continues. Parents told her, “‘You’re in the park, you look like one of us, you talked to us first — you should try driving around.'”

Van Pilsum said she then reached out to community “stakeholders,” including police. “When I’m confronted with difficult things, I weigh the good the story can accomplish and whatever harm of problems that can occur. To do that, I need to talk to the stakeholders. I’d already talked to some parents who felt like [the SUV test] would be compelling.”

She first approached police public information officer Molly Anderson Tuesday morning. Van Pilsum acknowledges Anderson did not endorse the idea. There were two conversations with Edina deputy police chief Jeff Long, who, Van Pilsum says, ended by stating the child-luring incident was “just too fresh” for Fox9’s plan to go forward.

Who makes the call?

By this time, Van Pilsum says she and her crew were having second thoughts. As noted, Horwich and I were both boggled by how Fox9 could get parental approval before a drive-by. Van Pilsum admits the scenarios seemed far-fetched.

“Maybe you’d have kids in the front yard, parents in the backyard,” she muses. “It was clearly becoming really cumbersome from our standpoint.”

Around 11:30 a.m., while the Fox crew was pondering, Anderson alerted Edina schools officials. In turn, community education director Doug Johnson sent this email to parents:

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.

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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.

Van Pilsum says the email was needlessly alarmist and clearly inaccurate. She insists the drive-by was never portrayed as a sure thing, but Anderson’s email made it seem like a certainty.

[Update: Van Pilsum says she was speaking about the school district public information person, not Anderson.]

“To me, the big problem was that [the public info officer] sends out an alert to the school without checking with us,” Van Pilsum says. “She sends out a panicked email about something that was not going to happen.”

Van Pilsum says the schools should’ve checked with the station before their email blast. District officials relied on the cops — who were never told the idea had been nixed.

Van Pilsum acknowledges Fox9 hadn’t killed the idea when the police email went out. In a MinnPost comment, she says the decision was made “hours before school officials sent parents the inaccurate information,” but did not call police to tell them.

Should Anderson have called the reporter instead? Consider the department’s perspective:

Days after an ultra-scary child-luring allegation, a TV crew comes into City Hall one morning proposing to replay similar circumstances that afternoon. Two city officials, in three conversations, say it’s a dumb idea. It’s nearing lunchtime — a couple of hours from “go” time — and no one’s told you the idea is dead. So you err on the side of caution, and let your constituents know.

Anderson would not answer questions about the incident. However, she forwarded Edina Police Chief Mike Siitari’s official statement, which pointedly disputes Van Pilsum’s contention that the drive-by was presented as mere possibility:

The information we put out was accurate and was provided by Fox 9 to us. Our Deputy Chief called to advise them after the initial call that this was an ill-advised idea. At no point did they tell us this was only a plan.

So whether it’s poor communication or an about face by Fox 9 after the email went out and 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, particularly after the previous incidents.

Permission slip
Neither the schools nor police statement mention parental permission. Fox9’s statement says this was clearly part of the deal:

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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.

That last sentence is inaccurate. The schools email (reprinted in full below) says the story was “pulled” — even Van Pilsum admits a plan was at least floated. However, the schools leave responsibility for the parent permission dispute in police hands:

Update on possible FOX 9 story:

Please note that reporter Trish Van Pilsim [sic] contacted Jolene Goldade, EPS Communications Manager and indicated that the FOX 9 story that I referred to in my last email to you [has] been pulled.

The station received numerous complaints about the story. Ms. Van Pilsim indicated to Jolene we misrepresented [what] they were actually doing. Ms Van Pilsim stated that she was going to be asking parents permission prior to any contact with children. Information that we received from police did not indicate this method was going to be used.

I did speak personally with Molly Anderson of the Edina Police Department who shared with me that she had informed Ms. Van Pilsim that the Department would not endorse this type of activity.

Our communication to you was in direct response to the information that we received from the Edina Police. We work closely with them to help create and maintain a community that has the safety and well-being of children as a top priority. If more information becomes available, I will pass it along.

What are we left with?
Despite the pullback, Van Pilsum still believes her story was “responsible” and “important,” part of decades-long work promoting child safety. It’s she why carefully weighed the plusses and minuses and opted out, and why she objects so strongly to the “amoral” label.

“No reporter — no one — has done more for child safety than me,” she states.

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Van Pilsum adds that she was “shocked” by the outcry over testing kids’ ability to follow parental instruction, calling it “a very commonly done story” both at the local and network level. [Update: Van Pilsum says she was shocked by people complaining about something she hadn’t done.]

“It was done years ago when I was at WCCO, at the Mall of America — with parents’ permission,” she notes.

But when pressed, Van Pilsum admits she can’t think of an example where the faux luring involved cruising public streets, a tactic that still strikes me as so absurd I can’t believe a news director let it out of the building.

And while the question of parental notification may fairly be labeled she-said/she-said, this risky approach shouldn’t have even been a same-day possibility. Van Pilsum clearly gave the police a heads-up, but not much of one, escalating the possibility that the suburb’s emotional tinderbox would explode.

But Van Pilsum wasn’t the only media member with explaining to do.

Horwich, making an incorrect assumption from the schools’ initial email, wrote, “evidently the KMSP news-cruiser/pedophile-mobile was out this afternoon,” when there was no evidence it was. While he diligently tried to get the station’s comments, and asked some great questions in follow-up reports, his match hit the tinderbox prematurely.

Given my own “holier-than-thou,” I had a moral duty to do more reporting and add to the record, not cannibalize it. For that, I apologize, Trish.