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Von Pinnon: Was local TV station right to break the law for news?

Is it ever justifiable for a journalist to break the law in pursuit of news?

That's the question many area journalists and non-journalists are asking themselves following a local TV station's actions last week.

To illustrate how easy it is for outsiders to enter and reach students inside F-M area schools, a local TV reporter, using a hidden camera, walked through three elementary schools, having ignored posted signs directing visitors report to school offices.

Unlike a visitor who might have missed the signs and accidentally broke the laws posted on them, the local TV reporter's intent was clear: Get past the offices and walk through the schools to see if anybody would stop her or question her presence.

It's that clear intent that has police departments in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo investigating the matter.

It will be interesting to see if prosecutors bring charges or if police even recommend them. After all, local police and prosecutors won't relish the idea of pursuing the case against a local media outlet given their co-dependence on news agencies. For that same reason, the area school districts have been pretty careful to focus the issue back on their security weaknesses. The report did expose some flaws and complaining about the report's sensational method only makes it look like shooting the messenger.

Aside from how a person feels about the report's findings, the means to achieve it raises several issues.

First, members of the media have no special rights above and beyond a regular citizen. To ignore that laws were broken in this case could set a dangerous precedent and perhaps encourage more journalists to act illegally under the guise of informing or protecting the public.

Should a journalist drive through red-lighted intersections to illustrate how easy it is to avoid getting caught be police? Should a journalist break into homes or cars to illustrate how people are not taking measures to protect them? The options for these kinds of stories are endless.

And that leads to the second issue: Who is a journalist? The U.S. government failed to define this because it can't be defined. There is no licensing or credentialing of journalists, nor should there be. They must remain independent and impartial. So what keeps a creep who wanders through an area elementary school intent on doing harm from saying he was just pursuing a story for his blog about lax school security? Would police and prosecutors have to ignore it, based on this earlier decision?

Third, journalists who go through ethics training learn early on that laws need not be broken in the pursuit of most news. Resourceful journalists know they have to work harder to tell good stories and get to the truth. Could the same school security flaws have been revealed without breaking the law?

If the answer is no, and the benefit to the public exceeds the legal consequences that go with that decision, then surely the reporter and news agency will gladly face them.

So, yes, there may be extremely rare instances when it's justifiable for a journalist to break the law in pursuit of news. This was not one of them.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum.

Reach him at (701) 241-5579, or on Twitter @inforumed.

Matthew Von Pinnon

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum.

(701) 241-5579