Archive for Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Shouts and Murmurs

TV’s ‘sting’ sends chilling message

February 18, 2004

Last week, a Kansas City, Mo., television station, KCTV5, aired a sting operation in which 16 men who believed they had met a 14-year-old boy or girl in an Internet chat room drove to a house in Independence, Mo., to meet the teen for sex.

But instead of a teen greeting them at the front door, they came face to face with a television camera.

In its 10 p.m. news segments, the station broadcast the men's faces, and their names and hometowns.

Men hid their faces and ran toward their cars where another camera waited. One man frantically fumbled with his car keys while dodging a reporter's questions.

Another man -- one who had just recently put his photo on the Internet for the teen to see -- pulled a Bible from his car and said he was going door to door passing out religious pamphlets.

It appeared the men were of all ages, from early 20s to elderly. Only one of the 16 men -- one who contacted the television studio afterward and agreed to an on-camera interview in which his picture or name would not be shown, was not identified.

The men who showed up at the house will not be punished in a court of law. But with their faces and names broadcast, understandably, they will be punished by society.

The station explained its intent was to make the public aware that this type of situation can occur anywhere -- even in the Midwest.

Assisting in the operation were volunteers from perverted-justice.com, who posed as 14-year-olds in a chat room.

The perverted-justice.com Web site says its goal is to identify adults who want to meet underage people on the Internet and set up places where they can meet for sex.

Similar sting operations, in conjunction with perverted-justice.com, have been undertaken in other cities, including a recent TV newscast in Detroit.

In Kansas City, the series, which was promoted in televised snippets ahead of time and even during Super Bowl commercials, drew a large audience. The station's Nielsen ratings for the 10 p.m. news were reportedly the highest in eight years.

Not surprisingly, stations airing such sting operations have been praised and criticized. Praised for publicly naming adults who are plotting to have unlawful sexual relations with underage persons.

And criticized because once the broadcasts run -- revealing the adults' photos, names and hometowns -- the men are punished, albeit by society not by law, without having been convicted of a crime.

In fact, one of the 16 men took legal action to block the station from running the series. Identified only as "John Doe," the man filed a defamation lawsuit. A federal judge ordered the station not to broadcast the man's name and face, but later reversed his ruling, saying his first decision would have violated the First Amendment's prohibition against prior restraints.

Peggy Kuhr, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, viewed some of the broadcasts.

The segments, showing the men arriving at the door and being confronted by a television camera, were dramatic.

"It was powerful, gripping television," Kuhr said.

And, the content was important.

"Few would argue that wanting to have sex with 14 year olds is a good thing," Kuhr said. "It's clearly an activity we don't want to see going on."

Although this type of sting broadcast journalism has been around for years, Kuhr said it's important the pros and cons be carefully considered in advance.

"You have to say there was no other way to get a story," Kuhr said. "You have to explain to your audience once you do the story all of your methods, and the story must be important enough to justify those kind of techniques."

And in the end, is it justifiable?

The dusky pathways of the Internet make it all too easy for sexual predators to stalk their prey. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in five children on the Internet has received a sexual solicitation online. And, less than 10 percent of these solicitations were reported to authorities.

Tonganoxie's acting chief of police, John Putthoff, said the local police department has not received any such complaints. But that doesn't mean it's not happening or that it couldn't happen, he said.

"These kids they're on the Internet," Putthoff said. "They get into that stuff -- or some of them do."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.