Vigilante group, TV news channels draw fire for underage sex stings

Associated Press/March 8, 2004

Newtown Square, Pa. -- The TV news report is hard to ignore: An unsuspecting man goes to a house where he allegedly thinks a teenage girl is waiting to have sex with him, but instead he is met by a TV reporter with a camera and microphone.

TV news directors say the ratings week reports, which have been done in several cities around the nation, raise awareness about the growing problem of Internet-based exploitation of children. They say viewer response is overwhelming and almost entirely positive.

But federal and local law enforcement officials say the reports and the groups that help facilitate them do more harm than good because the "stings" don't lead to convictions and may put people in danger.

"Even well-intended grass-roots undercover investigators can create more harm than good, and we firmly believe that law enforcement investigations should be left to trained law enforcement officials," said Michelle Collins, director of the exploited child unit for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

This past week, NBC affiliate WCAU-TV of Philadelphia lured three men allegedly seeking sex with teenagers to a rented house less than a half-mile from an elementary school in the small Philadelphia suburb of Newtown Square. Police were not notified of the station's plans.

The local district attorney is investigating whether the station broke any laws.

WCAU defended its report.

"Child predators on the Internet are a huge problem, and NBC 10 helped raise public awareness of this issue," WCAU vice president of news, Chris Blackman, said in a statement. "In covering this story, NBC 10 believes that no one was put in danger and the station conducted itself responsibly."

About a half-dozen other stations around the country have teamed with the vigilante group Perverted Justice to run similar "stings." Volunteers go into Internet chat rooms and pose as young teens. When men contact the "teens," the group's Web site posts their sexually explicit conversation and often the men's pictures and phone numbers.

FBI spokeswoman Linda Vizi said the stings don't help law enforcement because evidence isn't collected in a legal way. Other law enforcement officials have said the "stings" can compromise real investigations.

"To lure them to some place and post their picture somewhere doesn't stop what they're doing. You're not going to embarrass these guys into stopping," Vizi said.

Several people have been arrested after tips from Perverted Justice or from the TV news reports but Vizi said arrests don't necessarily translate into convictions.

Vizi also said the TV crews may not be prepared if the lured men turn violent.

And Tom Bivins, a media ethics professor at the University of Oregon, said the stations' tactics are questionable.

"Is it necessary to entrap these people to get the story or could you simply report the story?" Bivins said. "Once you get involved, you become part of the story instead of reporting the story."

Regent Ducas, news director of KCTV in Kansas City, which did a series in February, said his station held lengthy discussions about the value and risks of such a story. Two former police officers were hired for security at the house rented for the sting, he said.

Sixteen men showed up, Ducas said. He said the report drew the station's highest ratings in a decade and showed that police are overwhelmed by the problem.

"We were hoping that our story would start the conversation, should police officers start reallocating resources? Is it time to start treating this problem much more seriously than in the past?" Ducas said.

At least one arrest was made because of a series last month by WDIV in Detroit.

"The idea behind it was protecting kids and the awareness of parents," said WDIV assistant news director Bob Ellis. "The story is so outrageous, it's one of those things that's hard to believe until you see it happen. It's scary when you see it as a parent."

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