Favorite

Feeling the sting 

Reporters and online predator arrests.

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?

david@arktimes.com

Favorite

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

More by David Koon

Most Shared

  • "Nasty Woman" at HSU: 32 artists celebrate Women's History Month

    A photograph of a woman doing a headstand so you can see her red underpants. A sculpture by Robyn Horn titled "Approaching Collapse." Those and other works that assistant professor of photography Margo Duvall says "celebrates the female voice in art" for Women's History Month go on exhibit March 1 in the gallery in the Russell Fine Arts Building.
  • Home again

    The plan, formulated months ago, was this: Ellen and I were going to go to Washington for inauguration festivities, then fly out the morning after the balls for Panama City and a long planned cruise to begin with a Panama Canal passage.
  • Who needs courts?

    Not since the John Birch Society's "Impeach Earl Warren" billboards littered Southern roadsides after the Supreme Court's school-integration decision in 1954 has the American judicial system been under such siege, but who would have thought the trifling Arkansas legislature would lead the charge?
  • Bungling

    If the late, great Donald Westlake had written spy thrillers instead of crime capers, they'd read a lot like the opening weeks of the Trump administration.
  • UPDATE: Campus carry bill amended by Senate to require training

    The Senate this morning added an amendment to Rep. Charlie Collins campus carry bill that incorporates the effort denied in committee yesterday to require a 16-hour additional training period before university staff members with concealed carry permits may take the weapons on campus.

Latest in Media

  • UA cozy with D-G columnist

    An interesting element of the ongoing story of budget problems in the University of Arkansas Advancement Division has been a divide in outlook in the pages of the state's dominant news medium, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
    • Nov 21, 2013
  • Democrat-Gazette covers one of its own in story of reporter Cathy Frye's rescue

    The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's reports on the rescue of its reporter Cathy Frye, who was missing for days in the hot scrubby desert that is Big Bend Ranch State Park, are gripping.
    • Oct 10, 2013
  • Hodge shares his OA vision

    Roger Hodge, the new editor of Oxford American magazine, talked about his rise at Harper's, his writing philosophy and his plans for the OA before a full crowd last Wednesday at the Clinton School.
    • Sep 26, 2012
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

New Crystal Bridges exhibit explores Mexican-American border

New Crystal Bridges exhibit explores Mexican-American border

Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.

Event Calendar

« »

February

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28  

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Future is female

    • Good article. I think you are right about running a new type of candidate, with…

    • on February 17, 2017
  • Re: Bungling

    • When did liberals and so called progressives start hating on old Russia? In the the…

    • on February 17, 2017
  • Re: Bungling

    • Press conference? Is that what that was? I thought I'd had the misfortune of stumbling…

    • on February 17, 2017
 

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation