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Ethics: Time for a New Angle
Sex predators….children…Internet chat rooms…stakeouts…hidden cameras…busts. All the makings of compelling television news stories.
The trouble is that some TV news organizations have been orchestrating the busts and then covering them as news.
For instance, WTMJ in Milwaukee, Wis., organized a sting involving Web pedophiles and reported on its efforts during the recent May sweeps (http://www.todaystmj4.com). An investigative reporter told the audience that the station arranged for volunteers associated with the Web site "Perverted Justice" (http://www.perverted-justice.com) to come to a house borrowed by the station and pose as underage teens in online chat rooms. A "poser" engaged in chat room conversations with adults, which in some cases turned sexual in nature. A second volunteer then phoned the sex predator and set up a meeting at the house, which was equipped with hidden cameras. Also on hand when alleged pedophiles arrived were the station's news crew, and local sheriff's deputies. The news reporter spent time on camera shaming each alleged predator before the deputies hauled him off to jail.
WTMJ has organized, and broadcast, on-camera pedophile stings for several years, beginning in 2003 (http://www2.jsonline.com/). Similar busts (http://www.perverted-justice.com/) have appeared on NBC's "Dateline" and on local newscasts in a number of markets around the country.
In fact, the Perverted Justice Internet vigilance committee has a name for this phenomenon. It's called a "Group Media Bust," and it has a fairly standard format. Perverted Justice volunteers go into Internet chat rooms, pose as young kids, and arrange meetings with adults looking for sex. For their part, the participating news organizations coordinate the house or apartment where the bust occurs and, in a recent refinement, the involvement of local law enforcement officers. This arrangement also allows the stations' reporter to interrogate the perpetrators on camera.
This type of story raises a host of complex ethical problems. We will tackle the question whether news organizations violate professional journalism standards by organizing the sting that it then covers as news.
At first blush, the answer seems to be yes. The practice violates the standard professional rules that journalists should not create the news or use deceptive practices when covering stories. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp), for instance, admonishes journalists to "avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public." Similarly, the National Press Photographers Association Code (http://www.nppa.org/professional_development/business_practices/ethics.html) says that photojournalists should not "intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events." At the same time, both codes recognize that citizens need to be fully informed on issues that require public interest and action.
Pedophilia is a horrific crime against children, and pointing out that pedophiles target children on the Internet is certainly in the public interest. A graphic visual demonstration of the ease with which pedophiles can engage children in illegal activity can drive home the point that parents, police and public officials need to be concerned about this problem.
When the first stories aired in 2003, we believe that WTMJ could legitimately argue that it was alerting parents to a problem that was underappreciated by society. However, once the story was told repeatedly, locally and nationally, the calculation changed.
As the story itself evolved, the nature of the coverage should have evolved as well. Initially, police were apparently reluctant to participate in stings involving the Perverted Justice Web site volunteers because they didn't trust their methods. Since then, the standards used by the folks at Perverted Justice for outing pedophiles have changed. Some police departments are now willing to work with the Web site volunteers. In fact, the Web site reports that some authorities now ask the site's coordinators for help in arranging stings.
At some point in this process (and we believe that it has come and gone), the journalist's job as organizer should have been finished. News stations should let the police organize the busts, and the authorities, in turn, can address the problems related to deception and interrogations.
That would leave the journalists free to cover such busts objectively and to pursue the story in new directions, including the laws proposed and passed, programs implemented, follow-ups on police actions, the judicial process and the like.
And the rest of us would no longer be suspicious of encounters between pedophiles and "posers" that appear to be staged so a TV reporter can sanctimoniously apply a scarlet letter before cops cuff the perp and take him away, all on-camera and in the name of yielding "information vital to the public" that cannot be obtained any other way.
© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus
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