Putting Predator Under the Microscope
My name is Taylor Smith. I am a third-year print journalism at the University of South Carolina free-lance writer for The State newspaper here in Columbia. As president of SPJ here on campus, I have helped organize a members meeting this month, which will examine the ethical issues of NBC Dateline's "To catch a predator" shows. I am not sure if you have seen the shows but apparently since 2004, NBC has aired shows that feature a an on-line predator watchdog group called "Perverted Justice," who poses as a young lady on-line that is trying to meet a much older man to meet her at her home. After agreeing to meet at her (the young actress's) home, the girl meets the man, who is almost always a registered sex offender and abruptly leaves the room. This is where the NBC reporter enters the room and grills the man about why he is at the teenage girl's home and what he expected from the rendezvous. Shortly after the exchange, police enter the room and arrest the man.
According the to Nielsen ratings, the "Catch" shows have performed better than any other show in the time block they air, which is why NBC has made the shows a permanent fixture on Dateline programming. I realize this is a lot to swallow if you have not seen what I am talking about, but the NBC Dateline Website and a portion of an episode we will likely use at our meeting. Obviously the ethical questions arise: 1) What does "ambush journalism" do for the media's role as a watchdog over police, when they are cooperating so closely and 2) What do episodes like this do for the presumption of innocence of the accused? I'm sure I have missed an ethical qualm or two, so if you care to weigh in that would be appreciated, but my main question is: What is SPJ's stance on this new breed of journalism?
President, USC SPJ
First off, I should disclose that a couple of years ago my newsroom did a similar project to what Dateline is doing and I helped supervise. The entire thing made me anxious because I knew many of the ethical pitfalls inherent in doing this. We did our best to navigate our way through what is both a legal and ethical maze, and I think we did so fairly well. I'm sure there are other journalists who would say we should not have undertaken the project in the first place, but that wasn't my decision to make.
In our case, we knew that similar projects had been undertaken in Kansas City, Philadelphia and, I think, Detroit if memory serves. In a couple of those cities, the outrage was directed at the broadcasters rather than the sex offenders. The stations had rented homes to lure the would-be predators. People who lived near the homes felt the stations may have endangered the community by luring the sex offenders. In one case, a church was nearby and called on authorities to prosecute the station. In another case, authorities said the project had the potential to undermine active investigations or to drive potential predators underground before authorities could deal with them.
We were sensitive to all of this and more. I've always tried to follow the SPJ Code of Ethics, even while running a very aggressive investigative unit. One relevant part of the code to this project is this:
Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.
At the time, the use of chat rooms by sexual predators to locate their victims was a relatively new topic. One that could be considered to be of vital public importance because it could help inform parents about the dangers and allow them to take steps to protect their children. We decided to work with PervertedJustice.com, but in a limited way to try and get the story. They agreed to do what they usually do in terms of luring predators, but in this case, the purported young girl would be from the Twin Cities. We also decided to arrange for the meetings to be in a public place rather than a private home. PJ.com also agreed not to post their chat until we had time to do additional research and reporting. In this way we would only be slightly altering what PJ.com was going to do anyway rather than arranging an elaborate "sting" and also risk the criticism of bringing predators into a neighborhood. We could spend some more time trying to figure out who these potential predators actually are rather than ambushing them with cameras rolling.
After we had recorded PJ.com's chat with the predators, we did our best to determine if these people were real. We located three. One actually came to what he thought would be a meeting with a young girl at a public mall. Another turned out to be doing his sexual chat while he was at his job as an FAA controller. We shared some of our findings with the Metro Sexual Crimes Task Force to get their reaction. The material about the flight controller caused the local authorities to get a search warrant and question the man. He was taken into custody and charged with a felony. He was later found guilty and sent to prison.
All of this is background for you to understand that my take on these kind of stories might not be as "pure" from an ethical standpoint as others. We did our best to expose what we thought was a very real public safety issue in a powerful way while trying to not too closely align ourselves with either an advocacy group or public authorities. At the same time, we were mindful of the fact that once we knew of potential predators we could also be criticized for failing to do something that would reduce the risk to society.
I believe Dateline has taken a less thoughtful and more problematic approach. To begin with, the problem that is being exposed is no longer new. Even we were not pioneering when we did our stories, but at least those stories hadn't yet been done in our market. Now they've been done to the point of being a cliché. They may be great television, but it's growing hard to argue that they are news and therefore harder to argue the information is "vital to the public."
In addition, published reports indicate Dateline is now paying Perverted Justice for its services. Perhaps the deal has some sort of insulation to reduce all of the potential and actual conflicts of interest inherent in this, but if so, I don't know what those safeguards may be. Most would agree with the goals of getting sexual predators off the street, but many do object to PJ.com's methods. Dateline is now aligned with the methods through not only a news, but also a financial arrangement.
The deal gets even stickier in those instances where local authorities have "deputized" some of the PJ.com personnel. Dateline finds itself in a financial arrangement with people who are working directly with law enforcement for the apprehension and prosecution of individuals who are caught in a sting that is orchestrated by Dateline, PJ.com and local authorities. As these individuals go to trial, I don't see how Dateline can be anything other than an active part of the prosecution. It is a little late to be asserting they will "Act Independently."
In the end, I find myself questioning whether this program is actually a news program or a regularly scheduled entertainment program that has some of the trappings of news, but doesn't operate under the usual standards.
Chairman SPJ Ethics Committee
For more information about SPJs Code of Ethics, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.