TV show uses ruses to report
Critics say Dateline NBC may be making news as much as covering it in "To Catch a Predator."
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published April 18, 2006
To a group of Internet-savvy teens in Middletown, Conn., he sounded like the perfect friend: a 19-year-old baseball fan named Matt, new to the city and looking for friends on MySpace.com.
In reality, "Matt" was police Detective Frank Dannahey, a youth crime expert who had created a fake profile on the social networking Web site. Within two weeks, the veteran officer had infiltrated a group of high schoolers, learning the kids' real names, birth dates, home telephone numbers and high schools.
When Dateline NBC reported on Dannahey's ruse April 9, the newsmagazine noted it was invited to watch his experiment in tempting youth for personal information online.
But the officer says he posed as Matt only because he was working with Dateline - raising questions over whether the newsmagazine was reporting the news or creating it.
Dannahey said Dateline producers initially wanted him to find specific teens' MySpace pages while their parents sat beside him. But after he hit on creating "Matt" and the teens began divulging personal information, the story's focus changed.
"Two-thirds of the kids let a stranger onto their private pages," said Dannahey, a 25-year veteran of the police department in nearby Rocky Hill, Conn., who met Dateline producers while helping Middletown develop an online safety education program for youths. (Earlier in the year, seven teenage girls from the Middletown area said they had been sexually assaulted by men they met through MySpace.)
"We were basically re-enacting what happened in Middletown," he said.
Dateline producers said they did not ask Dannahey to conduct the experiment. A version of the story on MSNBC.com said the officer "decided to test how cautious teens around here were" and that " "Dateline was invited to see firsthand how the experiment would unfold."
Such distinctions may seem minor, but they loom large for critics who say Dateline may be making news as much as covering it.
NASCAR officials complained earlier this month whe n Dateline brought a group of Muslim men to a Virginia speedway to test fans' reaction. And the show faced a major scandal in 1993 when producers admitted staging an explosion to dramatize the danger of rear-end collisions in General Motors trucks.
Now experts have criticized the show for paying a volunteer group at least $100,000 to participate in the fourth installment of its blockbuster series, "To Catch a Predator."
In these reports, Dateline enlisted a group called Perverted-Justice.com to pose as teens online. They arranged meetings with men interested in sex with a minor at a house rented by the newsmagazine and outfitted with cameras. Once the men came inside, correspondent Chris Hansen confronted them about their intentions.
But journalism watchdogs had pointed questions about Dateline's series, which has aired three installments since 2004. For the fourth, which hasn't yet aired, three members of Perverted-Justice were briefly deputized by police, according to the Associated Press and Washington Post .
Doesn't paying deputized police agents to help arrest suspected pedophiles violate long-held tenets of journalists' independence from law enforcement?
No, says executive producer David Corvo.
"Law enforcement doesn't have anything to say about what we do. ... We decide who we put on television," said Corvo, who compared paying Perverted-Justice volunteers to hiring consultants. "It's a new way of covering what we think is a new crime. ... We're trying to make it real for an audience."
And though some say the stories can be misleading, Corvo insisted Dateline is always honest.
"(In Dannahey's case) we told the audience it was an experiment," said Corvo, who would not confirm the amount paid to Perverted-Justice. "I don't think we're pushing ethical issues, though we're certainly pushing reporting technique."
But the TV journalist who chairs the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists said he was particularly concerned about the "Predator" series.
"How do you separate yourself from this (as journalists) when the crime goes to trial?" said Gary Hill, news manager/special projects for KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. He cited elements of the SPJ ethics code which advise journalists to "act independently" and to "avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events."
"As a journalist, is it really your job to put these guys in prison, or is it your job to report on them?" he said.
Hill acknowledged he is conflicted about the issue. He produced stories in 2004 for KSTP on Perverted-Justice's stings, asking the group's volunteers to pretend they lived in the Minneapolis area to attract local men.
One subject, an air traffic controller, traveled to the Mall of America to meet someone he thought was a teenage girl; neither KSTP nor Perverted-Justice sent anyone to the meeting. But KSTP followed him, obtained his license plate number, discovered his true identity and eventually gave police enough information to obtain a search warrant.
"These things make me uneasy," admitted Hill. "The Dateline stories illustrate this issue in a powerful way ... but does that overcome all the objections ... about (journalists) injecting themselves into the middle of it?"
Hill's dilemma recalls the controversial Mirage Tavern, a fake bar established by the Chicago Sun-Times , CBS' 60 Minutes and the Better Government Association in 1977. Staffed with undercover journalists and hidden cameras, the bar attracted a parade of bribe-seeking city officials who were documented in TV reports and a sprawling 25-day newspaper series.
Local TV stations have taken such dramatic reporting to new levels. Examples include placing a child featured on fake missing children posters in a park to see if bystanders react, and re-enacting the Oklahoma City bombing scenario by parking a Ryder truck near a federal building to test security (both stories were done years ago by Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13).
Looming in the background is the competitive pressure to tell compelling stories in an eye-catching fashion, building ratings at a time when viewership is dropping for many TV programs.
"It's not news anymore. ... It's about profit and ratings," said Terry Heaton, a Nashville consultant who worked as news director for six different TV stations over a near-30-year career. "It's like being drawn to a car wreck ... and the need to be sensational is growing higher and higher."
Corvo, who noted Dateline developed its first Perverted-Justice piece after hearing of a similar story by a Philadelphia TV station, said the only notable viewer criticism followed their early stories, because the men were not turned over to police.
The executive producer resisted the idea he was judging the ethics of his stories by their results.
"We have standards and policies so we make a convincing story for our readers," said the producer. "If they think we've gimmicked them up, they're not going to watch them."