I usually avoid public appearances, but last weekend during the Arkansas Literary Festival, I found myself on a panel, discussing what the role of the media should be in covering online predator stings. The discussion, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, was moderated by Democrat-Gazette deputy editor Frank Fellone with me, Jake Bleed of the D-G, Saline County Sheriff Phil Mask and UALR Law and Society professor Jay Thomas Sullivan as the talking heads.
In case you haven’t watched an episode of NBC’s “Dateline” recently — since 2004, that network has turned the on-air sting into a cottage industry — some bit of explanation is in order: In an online predator sting, police officers pose as minors in online chat rooms, attempting to lure unsuspecting molesters into their jurisdictions for arrest. Once a bait house is set up, police have been known to make more than half a dozen arrests in one night.
With these predator stings costing not much more than a few hours of officer training and maybe a new computer, Arkansas law enforcement agencies as tiny as the Heber Springs PD have created online sting units in recent years. Often, the media is invited along as the arrests go down, leading to flashy, positive headlines and sound bites for the law enforcement agency involved.
Sheriff Mask said that almost every Little Rock TV station and the Dem-Gaz have sent reporters and cameras to tag along as online predator arrests were made in Saline County (one local station even posted to their websites transcripts of the actual conversations between police officers and the accused as the arrests were made, complete with the men in question pleading, crying and begging to be let go).
My problems with this from a reporter’s standpoint are manifold, but they start with the second thing you learn as a reporter, after how to make float-a-pistol coffee: There’s no free lunch.
Because leaks open the door to defense claims of compromised investigations, police and prosecutors are notoriously tight-fisted with information, even in the best cop/reporter relationship. Given that, the day a high-ranking officer calls me up and says, “Hey, buddy, wanna come watch as we bust an evildoer?” is the day I get worried. I get worried because that officer, no matter how dedicated to his cause or how much he might like me, is seeking the one thing I can add to his arrest, and it’s not my sparkling company.
There’s a fine line there. It’s not well marked, and it doesn’t only apply to cases like these.
Once a media outlet crosses that line and decides to trade headlines — and, worse, space for the names and photographs of the accused — for a rare chance to roll with law enforcement, there’s no turning back. This sometimes elegant, sometimes vulgar profession of ours is transformed into something brutal: the whipping post on the town square, where the accused are held up to ridicule and others are scared into not committing the same crime.
“But,” said some of the folks at our panel discussion, “shouldn’t these men be publicly shamed?”
Maybe so. But since when is it the job of the media to shame anyone? I know it’s hard to believe in this era of the 24-hour news cycle and bubbleheads spraying rebuke all over their studio guests, but I believe if someone is shamed by news coverage, it should be an unavoidable side effect of reporting the news, not a goal.
A couple of years ago, I went over to the North Little Rock Police Department to talk to the team that does their Internet predator stings. The team was, to a man, dedicated and forthright, true believers in their calling. Somewhere on nearly every man’s desk was a picture of Kacie Woody, the girl from Greenbrier who was killed by a man she met on the Internet in 2002. Some of them, I remember, carry her photo in their wallets, beside the pictures of their own children.
As the father of a young son just then getting interested in the Internet, it was hard not to root for those guys to succeed. At the same time, however, before we even started the story, my editor and I had nixed the idea of covering an actual predator sting, even if they offered.
Here’s why: Because we as reporters can’t side with the police, as if an arrest were the end of the story, nor can we exploit our ability to put someone’s name and face before the public based on personal indignation rather than news judgment.
Hello? Hello? Hello?