NEW YORK — It makes an eye-opening story: knives, razors and pepper spray easily passing through supposedly beefed-up airport security. But it also raises troubling ethical questions: In particular, are journalists justified in breaking a law to expose weaknesses in enforcing it?
The New York Daily News, in an investigation published this week, revealed that its reporters had taken prohibited items through airport security 14 times at 11 different airports. Not one of them was caught.
The potential weapons were concealed in carry-on bags. Contraband was slipped past security at all four of the airports where terrorists boarded planes last Sept. 11, the News revealed.
A “CBS Evening News” story this week exposed similar weaknesses. CBS didn’t smuggle prohibited items, but tried to pass lead-lined film bags that block X-rays through security. In 70 percent of the cases, scanners didn’t notice or check the bags.
The stories, and the prospect of more of them, infuriate federal officials — not just, they say, because the results are embarrassing.
“It’s bad for the country,” said Department of Transportation spokesman Chet Lunner. “That these stories are helping the bad guys seems to be completely obfuscated by the rush to get attention or notoriety for your newspaper or broadcast.”
The Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s largest trade group, said reporters who try to test security this way should be prosecuted. Federal law prohibits both passing banned items through security and taking them on airplanes.
The Daily News story followed a similar investigation done last October, said Edward Kosner, the paper’s editor in chief.
Given the crucial part security lapses played Sept. 11 and the increased spending on improving the system, the Daily News believed it was important to check how the system is working.
“No one breaks any law lightly,” Kosner said. “In a way, I guess you could look at it as civil disobedience. We were willing to take the consequences.”
It would be different if reporters created a hazard by, for example, testing airline security by rushing a cockpit, he said.
CBS thought it could probe the system without smuggling prohibited items. If security didn’t see a large black blob that indicated their X-rays couldn’t get through, they wouldn’t see a concealed knife, said correspondent Vince Gonzales.
CBS would never break the law to get the story, he said.
“We didn’t believe it would be a good idea to try that,” he said, “especially when you had the National Guard standing with guns at a lot of those checkpoints.”
A code of ethics published by the Society of Professional Journalists doesn’t specifically address law-breaking. It advises that undercover or other surreptitious methods not be used unless there is no other way to get a story of compelling public interest.
“I don’t condone breaking the law just for the sake of doing it, just to get great footage for sweeps week,” said Jane Kirtley, a professor on media ethics at the University of Minnesota. “But the question always comes down to, how else are you going to test these things out?”
The federal government says these systems are checked by independent inspectors, with the results shared with Congress.
Reporting publicly on their weaknesses is like Pentagon reporters publishing news of troop movements, Lunner said. Potential terrorists could learn which airports have the weakest security and the best way to conceal weapons, he said.
“It shouldn’t be the media’s job to undermine the national security of the United States by increasing the risk to passengers and airline personnel,” said Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association.
Kosner said he understands the unhappiness, but the News considers the information important.
Similar stories have been done by a handful of local CBS affiliates, after CBS News first tested security earlier this year. Federal authorities conceded they’re in an awkward position when it comes to prosecuting reporters, since it may look like sour grapes because of an embarrassing story.
Plus, they’d have to catch them in the act.
“My own view is that security ought to be grateful to have these weaknesses exposed,” Kirtley said.