Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism
I abhor online predators like any ordinary parent, teacher, police officer, or citizen. They represent a fissure in our society that undermines the foundation of our communities. That foundation rests on trust, and predators poison that trust. However, apprehending them is best left to law enforcement officials and not journalists. When the two entities conspire together, as they have in MSNBC Dateline’s To Catch a Predator, lapses in journalism ethics are inevitable.
Online predation is so repugnant and emotional it elicits visceral reactions from law-abiding citizens, including police and journalists, who are human too. They have emotions that are sometimes hard to check. Having respect or summoning sympathy for someone who sexually preys on adolescents is beyond difficult. However, that’s not what is worrying many journalists because most can empathize with Chris Hansen, the show’s host, as he withholds his emotions while snagging predators.
However, what they cannot understand are Hansen’s methods, and many are asking for more ethical common sense. The profession and public deserve that as much as the suspects, their victims, and their families. Journalism is also founded on trust, and when that trust is undermined due to questionable newsgathering tactics, one must ask if the ends justify the means. Most citizens and journalists want these predators behind bars; the question is how to place them there, not whether they belong there.
After sifting through the unpleasant emotions associated with To Catch a Predator and focusing on the journalism itself, one cannot help but reflect on this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster”. As Brian Montopoli of CBS News writes, “I don’t think we can abandon questions of journalistic conduct just because our first instinct is that the ends justify the means.” In journalism, the means rarely justify the ends.
The first general problem with To Catch a Predator is that it erases its watchdog role. By working in tandem with law enforcement officials, the show collaborates with the state, and by default, abandons its independence as a caretaker of the Fourth Estate. This dubious teamwork creates a conflict of interest that most conscientious journalists would shirk. One question, among many, that must be raised is this: How will Dateline handle future stories involving law enforcement officials from towns where the show conducted its stings? The answer should be a model for how they deal with law enforcement agencies.
Montopoli and others believe the show engages in entrapment because the decoys, who are not adolescents but members of a controversial organization known as Perverted Justice, often invite men to the sting center for sex. Dateline also engages in checkbook journalism by paying Perverted Justice for its assistance. Montopoli accuses Dateline of punishing the predators by humiliating them before they’ve been charged with crimes. Hansen appears to revel in playing the gotcha game, and as a quasi-interrogator turned detective, he blurs the line between objective reporter and law enforcement official. Both Hansen and the show’s producers are functioning as judge and jury, but that’s not their domain.
Trouble recently emerged for Dateline and Hansen when a Texas district attorney refused to prosecute any of the 25 men apprehended during a sting in Murphy, Texas because of the show’s tactics. According to the Austin-American Statesman, the trouble exploded when a local prosecutor showed up to play with a decoy and later committed suicide when the police approached his home. Douglas McCollam has detailed the events leading to this tragedy in the Columbia Journalism Review and the nightmare it caused the community.
Amazingly, these ethical and legal fiascos are only the tip of an iceberg that has been melting for months. Pierre Tristam of the Daytona Beach News-Journal argues that the show fundamentally is a ratings monster for MSNBC, which means it’s not going anywhere. In fact, The New York Post reports that NBC will continue airing additional editions. But why are these stings even televised, if not to tap into the reality television craze and sensationalistic nature of the show’s content? Stings like these occur frequently throughout the nation; why are the “sexy stings” the only ones televised? I can’t remember witnessing moonshine, cockfighting, or poaching stings.
Perhaps most disturbing is Tristam’s argument that the show is based on distortions of facts: he writes, “The most glaring thing about Dateline’s Predator series isn’t the overkill, the ethically compromised nature of the show’s relationship with police and Perverted-Justice, or even the tawdriness of Chris Hansen…It’s the fact that the whole premise of the series is based on a lie: That there’s ‘an epidemic of sexual predators in our country,’ and that based on ‘a recent study,’ according to NBC, ‘one in five children online is approached by a sexual predator, a predator who may try to set up a face-to-face meeting.’” Tristam reports that Dateline, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and other related agencies are basing their reports on a study from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice, which “found that 19 percent of Internet users age 10-17 ‘received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year,’ but three-quarters of those were from fellow-children or juveniles. Just 3 percent of youth Internet users ‘received an aggressive solicitation involving offline contact,’ and ‘none of the solicitations led to an actual sexual contact or sexual assault.’”
Of course, that the show’s producer has charged it with unethical behavior is equally compelling. The Smoking Gun reports that producer Marsha Bartel is accusing NBC in a breach of contract lawsuit of firing her after she complained “that the show violated ‘numerous journalistic ethical standards’ and many of the network’s own ‘policies and guidelines.’” In her attempt to obtain $1 million in damages, she added that NBC was “more interested in sensationalizing and dramatizing the Predator series for profit than news reporting.” Ouch! Of course, NBC stands by its hit show because of its transparency and the public service it provides.
Even more creepily, the show engages in the exact kind of pornographic voyeurism predators apparently love. The comments made during online chats, which the show broadcasts without reservation (most educated people know what those *!#* mean), pander to viewers’ lurid curiosity. One wonders how many predators are getting off on the show itself (and how many are learning to beat the system). Something surreal and post-modern flows while watching online predators engage in online sex chats.
Yes, online predators exist. Yes, they are revolting. Yes, I want them behind bars. And yes, many viewers enjoy this show. But why exactly do they enjoy it? That question has not been adequately answered. And a growing chorus of dissenters has been buzzing for months now. I applaud Chris Hansen and his colleagues for attempting to stop online predators. What law-abiding citizen doesn’t want this problem to end? However, I am disappointed that Hansen himself had to become a journalistic “predator” in the process. He should know better, and his colleagues expect more. Ratings and sensationalism should never trump ethics. The irony here, of course, is that Hansen is now claiming, after the debacle in Murphy, Texas, that he doesn’t “want to get involved in the DA’s business or the police business.” It’s a bit late for that Chris.
Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.