OUR OPINION: Fargo news segment went too far

When Mellaney Moore of Valley News Live walked undisturbed with a hidden camera through several Fargo-area schools, she prompted not one but two debates.

Our Opinion

When Mellaney Moore of Valley News Live walked undisturbed with a hidden camera through several Fargo-area schools, she prompted not one but two debates.

The first is the one she was after: Do those schools have lax security?

Then the second debate came after her: When, if ever, is it OK for reporters to break the law?

Let's think about the second debate first.

By law in Minnesota and ordinance in Fargo and West Fargo, visitors must sign in upon entering a school. Failure to do so can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, so police in Moorhead and the two North Dakota communities now are investigating Moore's actions.


They're right to do so. For it turns out that the question about reporters breaking the law has a pretty straightforward answer. Basically, it's the same one that advocates of civil disobedience have proclaimed since the days of Henry David Thoreau:

At times, people may feel that they have to break the law to promote the greater good. But even then, those individuals should show respect for the rule of law -- and recognition that they're not above the law -- by accepting that they may be punished for their actions.

Thoreau went to jail over his refusal to pay a tax. ("Under a government that imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is in prison," he wrote.) One of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most powerful essays was his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

And as recently as last week, a Fox News reporter said this in an interview: "I promised my sources I would keep their identities confidential and would have ended up having to go to jail to do so." In that case, reporter Jana Winter escaped jail only because the New York Supreme Court ruled that the state's "shield law" protected her silence.

For Mellaney Moore, jail would be way out of proportion for an alleged misdemeanor, assuming a court were to level that claim and find her guilty.

Still, as New York University's journalism handbook for students puts it, "journalists are subject to the same laws as any other citizens, and the newsworthiness of a story is no defense" against a charge.

So, when Valley News Live says it stands by Moore's story, the station sounds like it's missing the point. The law is the law; and if a reporter breaks the law in pursuit of a story, then "the newsworthiness of the story is no defense."

Speaking of newsworthiness: Yes, "there may be extremely rare instances when it's justifiable for a journalist to break the law in pursuit of news," wrote Matt Von Pinnon, editor of The Forum in Fargo (like the Herald, a Forum Communications newspaper).


But "this was not one of them."

Von Pinnon has a point. Any parent could have confirmed that schools in Fargo (or Grand Forks, for that matter) are comparatively open. Any drive past a school at recess could have confirmed it, too.

Besides, why does that openness demand an "expose" in the first place, given the reality that American schools remain exceptionally safe?

That issue, by the way -- that fact that the odds of a student dying in a school shooting are about one in 2 million, as National Public Radio has reported -- would be a great topic for Valley News Live. It would be useful, interesting and newsworthy; and there'd be no hidden camera required.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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