Students in a communication ethics class I taught at the University of Denver last fall were heavily supportive of the “Dateline NBC” project, “To Catch a Predator.” This was a class of nontraditional students, and most of them were mothers of young children.
“In this case I believe the end justifies the means. … They are minimizing harm that would come to innocent children,” one wrote.
Another found 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.
Polls probably also would show that most members of the public think reporters should cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute criminals. But when the subpoenas are issued, our instinct is to resist. We shouldn’t do the prosecution’s job.
“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 a meeting where the cops — and the cameras — are waiting.
Judging from the ratings, the public loves this. Those who would harm children are exposed and made to account for their behavior.
But the media should be more questioning. Is it ethically defensible to take part in the deceit that is a sting? Should you 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?
Contributing editor Douglas McCollam, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, suggests it is not.
“At a time when reporters are struggling to keep law enforcement from encroaching on news gathering, ‘Dateline,’ which is part of NBC’s news division, is inviting them in the front door — literally,” he wrote.
Gary Hill, SPJ’s ethics chairman, articulated similar concerns in responding to a question on the SPJ Web site. Although the issue is always important, the sting tactic has lost its novelty, he said, and it’s further tarnished by reports that “Dateline” has paid Perverted Justice for its help.
McCollam summed it up this way: “Dateline hasn’t so much covered a story as created one. In the process, it has further compromised the barrier between reporters and cops that is central to the mission of journalism.”
If your newspaper or television were to be approached by Perverted Justice to participate in a “sting” designed to identify real and potential perverts, should you go along, or say, “No thanks”?
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?
The SPJ Code of Ethics is useful, too, in setting forth principles that apply in reaching a decision. Among them:
* Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.
* Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.
* Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
* Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
* Be wary of sources offering information or favors for money.
* Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.