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ABC News Intern Update: Who's Zooming Who?

There simply isn't a better example of the sloppy reporting involved in the ABC News feature, "Radioactive Road Trip," than the first person account written by ABC News intern Melia Patria of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Here's an interesting excerpt:
Whaley started our tour in the reactor control room with a 45-minute slide presentation on nuclear energy. As if we were elementary school girls, he lectured us in a patronizing tone with simplistic explanations. He then left us in the hands of two flirtatious male students, who proceeded to show us around the reactor.

As we stood atop a raised platform, just steps from the reactor pool, one of the students whipped a camera out of his pocket and asked to take a photo. "My roommates are never going to believe," he said with a Kansas twang and an ear-to-ear grin, "that two cute girls came to the reactor! Now, squeeze in and smile!"

Amused by the request, we posed above the pool in which the highly-enriched uranium is stored. After a few snapshots, we realized the power of our pseudo-celebrity status as The Girls Who Visited the K-State Reactor. So for the next hour, as the two engineering students scoped us out, we scoped out the reactor and the security. We noted the open entry door to the control room and the closed-circuit TV system.

But what Patria didn't know, and what ABC News has failed to acknowledge since the report aired, was that their interns had been detected weeks before through the work of NRC, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Here's how the Kansas City Star told that same story:

When [Melia] Patria and [Hsing] Wei showed up at the K-State reactor, the staff had a good idea who the women really were. After other campus reactors reported similarly strange visits, federal authorities had figured out that the visitors were actually undercover reporters. The FBI passed the tip along to K-State.

In hopes of proving their suspicions, reactor employees asked the women to pose for a photograph. To get the shot, Cullens said, he had to resort to his own little deception.

“They were playing the flirt card to get information,” he said. “We wanted a picture of them for the FBI, so we flirted back.”

At one point, a reactor researcher asked the women what had drawn them to K-State. One of them, Cullens recalled, said her boyfriend lived in Kansas.

“We asked where, and she sort of pointed off to the southwest and said, ‘Over there,’ ” he said. “We figured there had to be something strange going on.”
Recall that in statements to the press, ABC News has said that the interns were instructed not to lie to personnel at the reactors. It doesn't appear that way from this account. You can find the photo, as well as K-State's version of the visit, by clicking here. And feel free to contact the university for a high-res copy of the photo.

UPDATE: Late Friday night, after we had all gone home for the weekend, ABC News issued a statement of support for the story:
The goal of this investigation was to do something the federal government does not: conduct unannounced field tests at the various reactors to see how easy or difficult it would be for a stranger to gain access to the reactors, not how easy or difficult it would be for an experienced investigative journalist. As graduate students the fellows were ideal candidates to undertake the legwork.

When asked, they identified themselves truthfully as graduate students. Terrorists don't announce their intentions, nor do they notify security officials in advance that they plan to visit.
True enough. And that's why the system worked. Through the standard background checks, the proper authorities were notified of this attempt to probe and breach security. If there had been an actual attempt to probe these facilities, the subjects would have been identified and apprehended. The fact that the institutions knew they were dealing with "journalists" was the only thing that prevented them from being detained.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here's a passage from another first person account from K-State written by Hsing-Wei from the Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government:

Unfortunately, this story has a mixed ending — it remains unclear whether this little adventure can be judged as a tale of success for public safety. While we had been noticed and noted, this news arrived a little late. We had already entered two nuclear research facilities in Wisconsin and Kansas, and afterward, would visit two more in Missouri.

Perhaps even more surprising, in a follow-up phone interview conducted several weeks after our visit, the KSU reactor director seemed unaware that we had ever been stopped by campus police. Apparently, the warning about two so-called shady female travelers never reached some ears at all.

Yeah, just like it seemed they were only flirting with you.

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Anonymous said…
It is my understanding that K-state planned this photo-op in order to supply photographic evidence of the suspects to the FBI, which was subsequently done. There never was any threat to the security of the uranium fuel or the safety of the public. If only ABC had taught their students the value of being honest and above board about who they were and what they were doing, they would not have been duped in this way.
Anonymous said…
Some Clintonesque word parsing there. Identified "truthfully" as graduate students, sure, a half-truth at best, as bad as lying. In the same league as "we were never truly alone", and "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is". I know in at least one case they said they were interested in enrolling at the school being "investigated" as graduate students. Is that also true? I don't think so.
Matthew66 said…
I think the ABC interns were being misleading at best and at worst were lying. The primary purpose of their visit was related to their roles as journalist interns, therefore they should have identified themselves as journalists. If the visit also had a purpose related to their graduate studies, that was incidental. I note that nowhere is it reported that they identified themselves as journalism post-graduates, which would have been less deceptive.

Their actions have of course ensured that RTRs will now more rigorously scrutinize potential visitors, which will probably discourage many interested parties from visiting the facilities. I doubt that RTRs will be required to go to the expense of installing walk through metal detectors, although perhaps visitors will be restricted to one or two timeslots per week when campus police are in attendance to screen them with hand held detectors.
Anonymous said…
I don't see what the big deal is about metal detectors. Those don't detect explosives. The story makes a big deal (falsely) out of either blowing up the core or making off with the material. Metal detectors traditionally are used to detect firearms. Firearms will not accomplish either task. Even if explosives were used there would be limited, or non-existent, dispersion. Making a big deal about metal detectors is a canard.
Anonymous said…
Eric McErlain, boy do you have a lot of time on your hands! While you are busy attacking ABC News and the ethics of its hard-hitting investigation, you ought to mention your own failed career attempt at becoming a REAL journalist. You are PR guy and you think people should believe you? You work as a mouthpiece for other people...that's pathetic. Your blog is totally and utterly biased - not to mention riddled with inaccuracies! Keep spinning the lies...
Anonymous said…
When a reporter is undercover, that's exactly what they are: undercover. Wouldn't really be undercover if they said they were graduate journalism students, now would it? Some of you on this board are obviously wound tight about the ethics of this incredibly important and valuable staple in journalism. That's fine, and as it should be. Keep in mind, however, that without such a tool, a lot of stories and truths needing to be told would not be able to get out to the public. And as for the students lying constantly about the 'boyfriend over there', etc., honestly that is splitting ridiculous hairs. The important aspect is that the students DID say they were graduate students, which WAS the truth, and what was required of them of ABC. They omitted the fact that they were journalists because, can we all say it together now please: UNDERCOVER.
Anonymous said…
If Cullens and the other Kansas student knew Wei and Patria were undercover reporters from ABC, why did they let them into the reactor facility with video cameras and bags to begin with? Why didn't they apprehend the reporters on the spot? If they really knew what ABC was up to, why didn't they try to make security at KSU look better? They could have sent in a police squad and school officials and really made a serious statement. But they didn't. If you ask me, I doesn't seem like KSU had any clue because the security at the reactor looked pretty lax. Those reporters walked right into the facility and stood next to the reactor pool... They filmed the uranium core for godssake. If Kansas State was in on the investigation, it seems they had a great chance to show our community just how serious they are about security. Instead, they looked like complete fools on national TV. As a student at KSU, I am totally shocked and apalled. Why aren't there guards or metal detectors at the nuclear facility? Shouldn't our university take this more seriously especially after Sept. 11 and the London bombings? Instead they leave the security of dangerous materials in the hands of students? We NEED guards and alarms and we certainly shouldn't let journalists or terrorists or anybody off the street just walk right inside with no background check at all. Hats off to ABC for exposing this. Many of us students here at KSU hope the school will respond to this report with serious security improvements.
Anonymous said…

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