Here's how it works: "Dateline" has volunteers pose as 12- or 13-year-olds and log in to chat rooms, where, as the accompanying online story explains, they wait "to be hit on by adults looking for sex. The…decoys tell the adults they are home alone and sometimes they say they are interested in sex, a few pretend they are eager to meet."
The volunteers, who come from Perverted-Justice, a controversial citizen's organization that aggressively seeks to ferret out online predators, engage in often stomach turning, sexually charged chats with the adults who contact them. One man, for example, writes the following to what he believes to be a 12-year-old girl: "yes I do want to come over--- would love to get you naked." That's relatively tame: Much of the chat room dialogue is too "graphic and disgusting" for "Dateline" to share. Some men, Dateline reports, send illicit photos of themselves to the decoys.
In each installment, dozens of men eventually show up at the address provided by the decoys, presumably for a sexual encounter. They enter the house, encouraged by an unseen and high-voiced decoy, and are soon confronted by "Dateline" correspondent Chris Hansen. Some of the men run; others, many of whom believe Hansen is law enforcement, accept his request for a conversation, which is recorded on hidden cameras. In this most recent installment of the series, they are arrested soon afterward.
It can be extremely difficult to discuss journalistic ethics when dealing with a topic such as this. "Dateline," many would argue, is exposing predators and getting them off the streets, and so high minded debates about the ethics of the program's methods do not come into the equation. I am sympathetic to that argument, and, indeed, I find the actions of the men featured in the program disturbing. But I don't think we can abandon questions of journalistic conduct just because our first instinct is that the ends justify the means.
So let's get to it. One of the objections to the program is that it's engaging in entrapment. It's an issue Stone Phillips took up on the "Dateline" blog.
"In many cases, the decoy is the first to bring up the subject of sex. However, the transcripts show that once the hook is baited, the fish jump and run with it like you wouldn't believe," he writes. Later, he writes this:
Enticement? Yes. Entrapment. I don't think so. The closer I look at the online conversations (which are available on Perverted Justice's Web site) the more obvious it becomes that these men are not first-timers when it comes to engaging minors in graphic online chats. They tend to be remarkably matter-of-fact in their approach, as if it is part of an all too regular routine.I'm not sure how this explanation satisfactorily addresses the question. Phillips says it's not entrapment because it seems to him the men have done this before. But I can't see the relevance of Phillips' hunch. It seems to me that "Dateline" is indeed entrapping the men by having the decoys, at least some of the time, bring up the subject of sex and later invite the men to the house for a sexual encounter. I don't necessarily object to this method in extreme cases such as this. But if you accept the traditional legal definition of entrapment – that one is entrapped when "induced or persuaded by law enforcement officers or their agents to commit a crime that he had no previous intent to commit" – than Phillips' defense raises questions, because it was often the decoys who first suggested the crime.
And let's keep in mind that the producers of "Dateline" are not law enforcement officers. If they, as members of the media, can be considered the officers' agents, that raises a whole new set of questions. But back to Phillips' argument: He writes that because (he thinks) the men have engaged minors in graphic chats before, they can be enticed to the house by any means necessary. That's a Machiavellian argument, and not necessarily an incorrect one, depending on your perspective. But it is not an unassailable response to the charge of entrapment.
Another, more important question the series raises is the nature of the media's role in dealing with alleged criminals. Hansen writes the following on the Dateline blog:
Our job is to investigate topics like computer predators, delve as deeply as we can into the topic so that viewers can see first hand what's happening. But, as for punishment, we leave that to the police and prosecutors.But isn't identifying someone as a child molester on national television a form of punishment? Public humiliation has been used for that purpose at least since the time prisoners were placed in the stocks and the pillory. One can, of course, argue that potential child molesters should be exposed to the public. Some law enforcement agencies do so. "Dateline," however, is not the law. Even if you think it is appropriate for these men to be exposed, is the decision to do so one that should be made by the media?
How far, after all, should something like this go? Would it be appropriate for "Dateline" to entice a man into cheating on his wife, and then broadcast the results? One might argue that the difference is that, in this case, there's a legal basis for the exposure. But again, legal issues are not "Dateline's" province. And the decisions the program makes don't seem terribly tied to them. Writes Hansen on the "Dateline" blog: "We have also had men show up whose chat logs were perhaps inappropriate but not necessarily illegal. Those men are usually not shown." Usually?
One could argue that what "Dateline" is doing is no less ethical than a typical investigative report, one that uses hidden cameras to expose a store's business practices or detective work to uncover alleged fraud at a corporation or agency. Those kinds of reports do sometimes raise ethical questions, but no one with a healthy respect for the press' role would argue against their existence. Particularly in this case, however, it's essential that one consider whether the media is circumventing the legal rights that normally protect citizens for its own purposes. "Dateline" is using aggressive decoys and hidden cameras to destroy the lives of the men that unwittingly appear on the program. Perhaps they deserve it. But what they deserve should not be up to NBC. The defenders of "To Catch A Predator" would no doubt laud the series as a public service. And you could make the case that it is, despite its flaws. But NBC is first and foremost a business, and the producers' motives are not simply altruistic. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but I find it telling that this program has been remade and rerun so often. You could argue that NBC is just making sure as many people as possible are aware predators are out there, but is it too much to think that a little thing called "ratings" might play a part as well?
Again, let me stress that I have little sympathy for the men featured in this program. But the issues "To Catch A Predator" raises are tied to larger journalistic questions too important to be ignored. It should be left to the law to decide how the men exposed on the program should be dealt with. But it is up to media to police its own behavior, even when the topic is distasteful and satisfying answers are not easy to come by.