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Ethics Case Studies
Who’s the “Predator”?

“To Catch a Predator,” the ratings-grabbing series on NBC’s Dateline, appeared to catch on with the public. But it also raised serious ethical questions for journalists.

The television newsmagazine, working “as a wall” with law enforcement, trolled for men to engage in sexually charged on-line chats with minors, then invited them to a face-to-face meeting, supposedly at the child’s home. Armed with liquor, condoms and little common sense, the men arrived at the front door. The kids weren’t home, but the suspects don’t know that when they walked into a kitchen and came face to face with reporter Chris Hansen.

The conversations were recorded by a bevy of hidden cameras, and the men were met by law enforcement officers once they left the house. The “suspects” were portrayed as sexual predators without any apparent constitutional protections.

Critics questioned this blending of reporters, “watchdog” groups and police, arguing that the men caught in the sting were entrapped at worst and faced public ridicule and humiliation at best. One target of the sting, a Texas district attorney who made contact on-line, but never ventured out for a personal meeting, committed suicide before facing the cameras. When police, armed with a search warrant — and a Dateline camera crew — showed up at prosecutor Louis Conradt Jr.'s home in Terrell, Texas, no one answered the door, according to the police who took part in the attempted arrest. After forcing their way into his home, police found the 56-year-old prosecutor in a hallway holding a semiautomatic handgun. "I'm not going to hurt anybody," he told police before firing a bullet into his own head.

Dateline isn’t the only media organization that has been involved in these stings. They date back to at least 2003, and what they have in common is a Web site called Perverted-Justice.com. It’s a highly motivated advocacy group, committed to finding perverts and removing them from circulation.

Perverted-Justice.com scans chat rooms looking for men who can be lured into sexually explicit conversations with correspondents pretending to be underage boys and girls. It works with police and news media to entice the unsuspecting marks to set-up trysting places where the cops — and the cameras — are waiting.

Judging from the ratings, the public loves this. Perverts who would harm children are exposed and made to account for their perversion.

But the media should be more questioning. Is it ethically defensible to take part in the deceit that is a sting? Should a journalist buy into the agenda of an advocacy group, even if it’s a worthy agenda? Is it ethical to work with law enforcement authorities in this manner?

Question: If your newspaper or television station were approached by Perverted Justice to participate in a “sting” designed to identify real and potential perverts, should you go along, or say, “No thanks”? Was NBC reporting the news or creating it?

Once Perverted-Justice.com had an alliance with a national network, the smaller local stations that first cooperated with the group probably will no longer face the decision of whether to join forces in similar “stings.” NBC aired the last new episode of “To Catch a Predator” in December 2007, but episodes are still available on MSNBC.com.

The biggest stakeholders in this ethical decision clearly were the men lured before the cameras. Their wives and families also faced major consequences from what NBC did. Law enforcement officers provided plenty of “perp walks,” arrests and bookings in clear view of cameras for additional video footage of the suspects, in return for coverage of their cleaning up the community of predators. Perverted Justice got airtime for its cause and financial reward for its efforts. NBC had a primetime audience of more than 8 million viewers.

The public had a stake, too. There is no question that law-abiding citizens want to bring sexual predators to justice. Even one communication ethics student, a young mother, said she could find no reasonable arguments against using a sting to trap potential perverts.

“I do not see in any way that a news station would be looked down upon for giving society what I would consider this service,” she wrote. “... If one child can be saved from this horrific event, then by all means do it. I think if you were to take a poll the majority of society would agree.”

That’s most likely true. But responsible media shouldn’t base their ethical standards on what’s popular.

Enticing (the term Hansen prefers to use, as posted on his blog) or entrapping subjects holds many legal and ethical issues. Should reporters seek out criminals? Is this indeed a public service as NBC contends? There is also an evidentiary problem when law enforcement and media join forces to prosecute criminals. Are outtakes, notes and other reporting tools now part of a criminal investigation?

In one case a district attorney’s office announced it would not prosecute cases during one of NBC’s stings, citing a lack of evidence. The office claimed Perverted Justice members refused to testify and turn over records (they deny these accusations) and NBC needed to provide additional footage to help build a case. Running the on-line trolling and sting house in two different counties caused a jurisdictional dispute, creating another legal issue.

Media critics and ethicists question the reporting methods and standards of running this type of “undercover” operation. Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute said, “The project, from the very beginning, had lawsuit written all over it,” a competing network reported.

Critics cite the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics as a guideline for fair and accurate reporting, including:

— 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.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money, avoid bidding for news.
— Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.

NBC engaged the services of Perverted Justice, inviting scrutiny of creating of a news story. By paying actors to pose as minors and engage in sexual chat, did the newsmagazine become the story? NBC surrounded the criminals with law enforcement waiting patiently outside to record the outcome. This was the reverse of most crime scenes. Justice and the media were both perverted throughout this predatory process.

The important thing is to have a discussion, and to ask the right questions. Among them: Is this a justifiable, ethically defensible use of deception? Should you buy into the agenda of an advocacy group? How ethical is the group itself? Do you compromise your “watchdog” role by cooperating with law enforcement authorities?

DECISION: Let law enforcement conduct sting operations and the media report on the arrests.

— By Robbie Rogers and Sara Stone, Baylor University

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