By: David Noack
A reporter for The Palm Beach Post blew the whistle on a Florida TV reporter posing as a police officer for a story about a rash of home invasion-type incidents by people posing as police officers.
To Ava Van de Water, who covers real estate and writes a column for the newspaper, this was a case of poor journalistic judgment. And top management at the TV station involved agrees that the reporter should not have impersonated a cop.
The incident raises questions about reporters misrepresenting themselves, especially in light of recent court decisions banning media ride-alongs with law enforcement officers and opinion polls saying the press has too much power and sensationalizes stories.
After stopping home for lunch, Van de Water says there was a knock at her front door. She answered it, and a man identified himself as a West Palm Beach Police Department detective and said he wanted to ask her a few questions.
Van de Water saw his badge, and the man moved around her into the foyer. She backed up and began to have second thoughts. It was then that the man identified himself as Derrol Nail, a reporter for WPTV Channel 5, the NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach. She never saw a cameraman, she says.
The story, which did not air, was put together with the cooperation of the police department. In fact, it even lent the TV reporter an official badge.
“What [he was] doing is totally against the law. It’s illegal to impersonate a police officer, [so] I kicked him out of the house, bolted the door, and called the police. And I said, ‘Did you know there’s a Channel 5 reporter here posing as a police officer?’ I said, ‘Is that legal?’ They said, ‘No,'” says Van de Water.
Within moments, another man identifying himself as a police officer was at the door. Van de Water, who was still on the phone with the police department, asked whether the new officer was a real police officer.
She says later in the day the TV station’s general manager called to apologize, and the next day she was sent a large basket of fruit, French champagne, Brie cheese, and Belgian chocolates.
“There are two major problems,” says Van de Water. “The most important one was he was posing as a police officer, and [the other one was] he walked into my house uninvited. A few hours later, after the anger had subsided, I started to get upset because I realized how easily he got into my house, slipped right past me.”
Post managing editor Tom O’Hara says the paper’s policy is that reporters don’t misrepresent themselves, unless they’re seeking “extraordinarily important” information.
“I’ve been the managing editor here nine years, and we’ve never done that, so that shows you how rare I would consider the circumstance to justify that. In this instance, trying to demonstrate to people that thieves can get into homes by posing as police officers doesn’t reach that threshold,” says O’Hara.
Robert Jordan, the TV station’s general manager, says reporters should not misrepresent themselves. He says the news director was out sick that day and the news reporter was doing what he was told.
“I remember when I was a young reporter, and you’re just na?ve. I would chalk this up to naivet? on his part. Thankfully, the reporter for the Post was gracious, and this is the end of it,” says Jordan.
In the majority of cases, says Jordan, reporters should not misrepresent themselves. “The fundamental issue is one of ethics. Reporters don’t misrepresent their identity to get a story. Now I’m sure there are instances when the greater public good starts to weigh the scale to a neutral position,” says Jordan.
Dena Peterson, a spokeswoman for the police department, says the episode is “over and done with” but that she feels the news report would have been educational for the public.
She says the department will cooperate with the media on crime-prevention stories in the future but won’t be issuing a badge to a reporter.
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http:www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher July 10, 1999) [Caption and photo]