Is it good journalism, or is it going too far? TV stations create chat rooms to lure men into believing they are arranging trysts with teenage girls. The sting operation has a laudable goal: exposing potential pedophiles. It also has some journalists worried about ethics. And at least one of the men nabbed on-camera is suing the station that aired the story.
Meredith Broadcasting's KCTV Kansas City, Mo., and several other stations ran February sweeps pieces working with Perverted-justice.com. The Portland, Ore.-based Web site exposes "wannabe pedophiles" by visiting chat rooms and posing as adolescents, enticing adults to make dates. The conversations are extremely explicit. Later, the Web site exposes the would-be offender by posting his name and phone number, which they manage to obtain during their chats.
KCTV and stations in Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and elsewhere joined with Perverted-justice.com to take the deception to the next level. Together, they secured a house where the adult visited, presumably to have sex with a minor. Instead, station cameras were there to tape them. KCTV's sting nabbed 16 alleged sex predators prowling the Internet, but it also resulted in three complaints of defamation and one lawsuit.
KCTV was apparently among the first stations to actually name names and show faces of alleged perpetrators lured to a house where, the station alleges, they expected to have sex with a 14-year-old girl. What the station didn't tell its viewers, says Miriam Rittmaster, attorney for one of the plaintiffs, is that her client terminated his online chat without having a clue where the teen's "house" was located. It was only after he received a phone call from a woman "who was clearly in her 30s or 40s" and expressed in graphic detail how she wanted to pleasure him that his "curiosity got the better of him," says Rittmaster.
The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather
aired a clip of the Kansas City sting that focused on Rittmaster's client.
Brian Costello, a Kansas City attorney representing another plaintiff, says his client also received a phone call after an Internet chat that he claims lured him out. "This is 100% entrapment," he says, though his client has since dropped his lawsuit and left the area. "[The station] rode him out of town on a rail, acting as judge and jury," Costello charges.
"Even well-intended grassroots undercover investigators can create more harm than good," Michelle Collins, director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told the AP. Journalists have problems with it, too.
Former ABC News correspondent Robert Zelnick, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Boston, has "little sympathy for sexual predators." However, he adds, "if you're employing fraudulent techniques to lure people into embarrassing situations, that's crossed the line."
Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a 5,000-member group of print and TV journalists nationwide, says deception is a "last resort" in developing news stories. Ideally, he says, investigative work by news organizations ought to come from within.
Most of the recent series—from Post-Newsweek's WDIV Detroit; Journal Broadcast's WTMJ Milwaukee, and Viacom's WCAU Philadelphia—relied on Perverted-justice.com to set up the chats and get the alleged perps to a pre-arranged site.
KCTV is steadfastly standing by its story. Station attorney Bernard Rhodes argues the plaintiffs are desperate to save their tattered reputations. "They said nothing about a call from an older woman when they were confronted at the house," he insists. "Their attorneys said nothing about a call" when they tried to get a stay to stop the story from running. "They knew exactly what they were doing," he says of the plaintiffs.
At WDIV Detroit, News Director Deborah Collura says no lawsuits have been filed by any of the 15 alleged predators she put on the air. As for the deception necessary to expose its targets, she says, "When you see those faces coming through the door and read the chats they had online, you don't give a second thought about going to air."