Ethics 2012: Case Study #2

Case Study #2: The Sting

WHAT: Perverted-Justice.com is a Web site that can be very convenient for a reporter looking for a good story. But the tactic raises some ethical questions. The Web site scans Internet chat rooms looking for men who can be lured into sexually explicit conversations with invented underage correspondents. Perverted-Justice posts the men’s pictures on its Web site.

Recently the tactic has spread to the mainstream media. Perhaps the most visible use of the resource has been on the NBC network’s Dateline news show. Many local television stations have used it as well. A Kansas City, Kansas, station, KCTV-Channel 5, may have been the first to show faces and name names. Its six-night report aired during February sweeps, in 2004, taking advantage of information and volunteers provided by Perverted-Justice.com. It helped the station get good ratings.

In December 2003, investigative reporter Steve Chamraz and volunteers from the Web site rented a house in Independence to wait for men who had responded to messages from volunteers who had pretended to be underage boys and girls. Several local men engaged in chat-room conversations with the supposed youngsters.

Eventually, 16 of them showed up at the rented house. Each time, Chamraz and a Channel 5 camera crew were waiting to record the encounter. But one man targeted by the reporting filed a federal lawsuit against Channel 5’s parent company, Meredith Broadcasting; the Web site; and the CBS network. The plaintiff claimed he was misrepresented as a pedophile and it cost him a $50,000-a-year job.

He claimed he never propositioned the “young girl” he chatted with.
The lawsuit challenged only one of several apparent instances of what Chamraz and Channel 5 characterized as “Internet predators” who wanted to “have sex with underage teens.”

But there are broader questions involved here. Here are the questions you might want to ask: Is it ethically defensible to employ such a sting tactic? Should you buy into the agenda of an advocacy group — even if it’s an agenda as worthy as this one?

WHO: Put yourself in the position of a news director or station manager who must decide whether to use the services of Perverted-Justice.com.

Who else has a stake in your decision of whether to make this a major story? Certainly, the community you serve needs to know who might be trolling for children to exploit. It’s important to drive these pedophiles out of the shadows and get them off the street. Your audience will thank you, especially parents with young children.

Certainly, Perverted-Justice.com is a stakeholder. Your reporting will add to its credibility. Is it a reputable group or a bunch of suspect vigilantes, possibly even voyeuristic? Those with the most at stake are the potential perverts caught in the sting. They most certainly will lose their reputations, their jobs and quite likely their freedom, as many of them will be arrested and incarcerated.

There are many questions here. Your task is to put yourself in the position of a news director — or managing editor — who has an opportunity to use information provided by a third party, outside the newsroom, with a clearly defined agenda.

WHY: Identify the competing moral principles. Telling the truth is always the primary responsibility of a journalist. But is this a manufactured “truth”? When you consider minimizing harm, does the harm you do to the Internet predators carry more weight than the harm they might do to the community’s children? Is Perverted-Justice.com itself ethical? Or is it, as one law enforcement officer in Wichita said, “a lawsuit waiting to happen”? Are you damaging your own ethics by using it? What’s the greatest good for the greatest number of people involved?

HOW: Decide how to answer the questions raised in the first part of this exercise. Write down your answer to see if it makes sense. And put your rationale into words. If you were to proceed with a story using these techniques, do you think your viewers and/or readers should be told something about your rationale? Consider making your decision-making process part of your coverage.

Posted in News
12 comments on “Ethics 2012: Case Study #2
  1. I think this kind of situation need to be supported as wrong. This sort of situation can be looked at in two different way. One, they could be setting someone up who is determined to fail no matter what and two, it would be looked at as setting someone up just to see what happens. I think that it’s wrong regardless. I do understand that it’s a way to help catch predators but I think it needs to be done in a more truthful manner. They could just get rid of chat rooms all together or find another way to find predators. What I don’t get is if they try to set something up, such as the rented house, and the male pedophile denies the chat room conversations how exactly are they going to prove that they didn’t do it. The website on the other hand, I find really wrong. Again I understand it’s a way to let people be more aware of predators in the areas, but I don’t think its a very respectful website. In this type of situation I would use my information in a different manner. I would probably publish a small story about the situation and report local authorities.

  2. Saulk says:

    I think that the wed site Perverted-Justice.com is a good use because it helps out many people to catch Internet predators and help parents to protect their children from perverts. Some parents do not know what their kids do in the Internet and some don't even know what could happened to them and who is talking to them. Anyone knows not to be talking to any young girls and they ones that do deserved getting caught and deserve what ever is coming to them. The wed site is helping a lot of people by cleaning the streets by tricking them into thinking they are going to meat a little young girl knowing they should not but do anyways and go to their house or meat them somewhere. I also think that the inventor who came up with the wed site and sitting everything up should beside on what do do with the person unless law informants take over and the person knows what did was wrong but he also has to do time for what he did and with what happened he might learn from it and can change his ways and go along with his life.

    Saul Rivera

  3. Renee Horton says:

    If I was a news director I would have this on every site because it is wrong for anybody to take advance of anybody. I don’t think that it is alright for teens to be on sites that could put then in that kind of position, and perverted shouldn’t set up teens like that. I mean that they can have a conversation by that can always lead to something else. Teens shouldn’t be talking to people that they don’t know, and then should know that because they have never seen them or meet them so they shouldn't have conversation with people they don’t know. So I think that yes it is a good idea to trick perverts because if then they well be caught and there is one less pervert. So by tricking them in to conversation and meeting them at the apartments. When they get there and they open the door and find out that they have be tricked to meet and young teen and they would go to jail. But then again I would put it on the sites because it could come to be not true or it could and they can sue you because that is evading someone personally life. But then again why not because teens have to live with what had happen to them so yes it is a good idea because why should people have to live like that because they have meet a pervert.

    Renee Horton

  4. Darianne (: says:

    i think that it is both right and wrong. just because it seems like they are setting up poeple that are bounded to get into trouble. if everyone cares so much, youd think that parents of victims would try to do something to get this to stop. but just without having to set people up, makes not only the predators look bad, but the teens puttung themselves out there like they mean nothing to anyone. if they adults get into trouble the kids should too. sometimes i dont even feel sorry for the young girls that get raped. killed yeah cause no one should die young. but if your going to put yourself out there like a peice of trash, i will have no sorrow for you whatsoever.

    but i wouldnt want to report on that type of stuff anyways! i think that would make me look like some what a nasty pedophile. i mean who would actually take an interest in that? but it is a nice thing for poeple to be kept up on that type of news. especially parents that have had these types of problems before. hopefully they are takikng their nasty children to get some help!

  5. Drake Wentz says:

    I think that if i was the person that was running the website if doing the right thing. I would put all of the things that are happening in the news. I dont care if it hurts someone, people got to know what is happening to teenagers and even their own child. People got to take better care of their children before something bad happens to them. Then when they caught the person that they are meeting they need to put him some where to get his.her mind straight. Then the kids also need to be punished too not just the adults. Then the next thing that needs to happen is for the parents to get a block thing on the Internet and have a password so the kids dont get on the website that they are talking to the adults. The parents need to be blamed to, they are the ones that are not watching what their kids are doing on the Internet. Thats just my own opinion on what should happen. Then on the other hand the person who created the website is a smart person to get all the perverts off the street and where they need to be.

  6. Ethics #2
    Lauren’s Response:

    So many questions have to be asked and answered. Is using the information from the website ethical? Is the website itself ethical? Who has the most to lose? In my opinion, I believe that it is in fact ethical. However, It is ethical to a certain extent.

    Obviously, the people with the most to lose in the situation are the men being revealed on the website. Though they have the most to lose, they also should lose it. If they are willing to engage in conversations with “minors”, whether sexually or not, it is wrong.

    The question is obviously if telling the “truth” is worth it. This is where my theory of being ethical to a certain extent comes into play. It is best for the public that the identities of the men involved are released, but one has to know just how to go about reporting that sort of touchy subject. You have to present the information in a way that makes the public feel safe, but others not feel threatened. Easier said than done.

    If I was put in place of the news editor/managing director, it would be a difficult decision whether to release that sort of information. With my outlook on the situation though, I definitely would decide to release it. I believe that it would be greater for the general public to release the information because there are children involved. Saving the lives and well being of underage kids if more important to me.

  7. Kate Hagans says:

    Kate Hagans

    From reading this case study, I think Perverted-Justice.com has been a great web-site that has been created. What would have happened if it hadn’t be created? Nothing would have been hurt if not, it most likely has saved minors’ lives. I think the use of services of Perverted-Justice.com would be a benefit for the company. Your protecting minors if anything. Yes the media company has a chance to have a lawsuit against them but what media company doesn’t ever have those risks? The stakeholders in this case study would be Perverted-Justice.com, the pedophiles, minors, and their families. By using Perverted-Justice.com this will obviously be an attraction for your media company. The adults are going to be interested and wanting to read more. What parents wouldn’t want more ways for their kids to be safe on the internet? Which meaning will make your media company more popular then the others.

  8. Andrew says:

    I believe this is ethically wrong. There is a place for news reporting and a place for the authorities to do their work. In my opinion a journalist could start the investigation as to tip of the proper authorities of what is happening in their community and later do a follow-up of how this tip helped make the community a safer place to live.

    However, that being said, if I was pushed to go ahead and report on the story, I would feel an obligation to tell my audience why we as a news source felt this was worthy of their attention. There would definitely by a fine line between free speech and an invasion of privacy during this investigation into Perverted-Justice.

    On one hand, the First Amendment gives the right to report on whatever a reporter (or anyone else) feels is necessary. Reporting on Perverted-Justice would fall into this because it is public knowledge.

    At the same time, however, setting these people up for conviction from a lead on a website that anyone can edit could be seen as an invasion of privacy. If whoever is publishing this information on the website doesn’t confirm the information before it is put on the Internet, someone who should have a clean name could have his life ruined.

    I believe the best solution to this problem would be to alert the proper authorities and report on what they discover in their official investigation.

  9. This study is hard to decide which way to go. I think it’s wrong that they are putting it in the news; if people want to know who to watch out for there should be a website that they could go on. But on the other hand, I think the website Perverted-Justice.com should be something that is kept up and running. It should be something that law enforcement is able to access and use so that it’s beneficial to everyone. The men can sue the courts, but the media should stay out of it. If the media wanted to report it then they could wait until something had been decided for the predator then report it. If the men could lose their jobs that is a consequence. If he had that good of a job in the first place then he should have been plenty capable of finding someone his own age to harass. Not that I want to see older women stalked, but older women are probably wiser and know what the dangers are. The people you could be hurting would be the pedophile and maybe his family, but if he is willing to talk to young girls this way then he should have to face the consequences. Never do anything you couldn’t tell your grandma.

  10. katieshow!:) says:

    It seems as though the journalists were deliberately putting people in a position where they would be likely to say incriminating things. I'm not saying they are forced to, but if a girl suggests something sexual, a man will build on it. While there are definitely people who are purposely looking to take advantage of young girls, there is a possibility they were falsely led into the situation. This would be a case of stupidity, not pedophilia.

    In the United States it is illegal to pose as another human being, living or dead. Not to be confused with an alias which is completely made up. However, using a photo from the internet or another source and using it as your own IS illegal. If not careful, the reporters could be under a lot of heat of their own.

    If a journalists intent was entirely to catch pedofiles, then this situation would be justifiable. Many young children could be harmed, affecting they, their family, and their friends' lives. Purposely ruining another person's reputation for personal gain is dispicable, however the off-chance that they get it right is preferable to letting the “bad guy” go free. If discovered, it must be printed.

    It is completely stupid for anyone to have an explicit conversation online or through text messages. It is not difficult to access records, and anyone could read them. An underage person puts himself in an incredibly dangerous situation by talking to an unknown adult, and the adult has the law to answer to.

    While extremely difficult, a better goal would be to prevent children from talking to those they don't know. Possibly this means keeping them completely away from online chat rooms, but raising awareness is also an option.

  11. Nikki says:

    If I was in charge of the website I would know what I am getting myself in to and know the only reason I am doing this is to keep the children safe. I wasn't sure at first if it was a good idea but after thinking about it I realized that there have been a lot of children get kidnapped or ran away to be with someone they met one the internet and they ended up getting killed. They did the right thing by putting it on the news so people realize that there are people like them doing what they do. Who knows maybe they have already took a kid once before. By putting this on the news didi harm the men doing this but if you really think about it the news saved some childs life. I think it was ethical. Even thought the men who were cought tried to sue and tried evrything to cover it up they knew it was wrong but still did it. The website did the right thing they were just keeping the children safe. I mean what would you do if you woke up one morning to find either your child was missing or ran away to be with some guy or girl they met on the internet.

  12. Ace Rivera says:

    I believe news directors and any managing editor has the right to use any source to caught Internet predators. in any neighborhood families have the right to know if any pedophiles are living in the same area. in order to protect their children parents could then keep an eye on them at all times. for Steve Chamrez and the volunteers from the Web site Perverted-Justice.com they pulled a sting operation to drive these pedophiles out of the shadows. am sure that they were more than embarrassed when the camera crew approached theses men that sexually wanted to exploit underage teens. also for this web site to post pictures and name names of those men that were lured by Internet chat rooms is a great way for people to know what kind of persons are trying to sexually exploit conversation with underage children. parents also need to learn how to teach their children not to use Internet chats because it is not safe, unless they know the person anyone can be behind the computer talking to young boys and girls. All an all i think it is okay for anyone to use information off of a third party in order to get a major story.