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'Gotcha' Shows Aimed at Nabbing Sexual Predators Raise Controversy

"Come in! I'll be right down!"

Those words from the adolescent girl on the second floor are music to the ears of the Internet sex predator standing at her front door. Wary that he has been followed, he anxiously eyes the street behind him before he turns the doorknob and enters her home.

He walks in, only to come face-to-face with an NBC camera crew and "To Catch a Predator" host Chris Hansen, who is holding a hard copy of the explicit conversation the man had with the underage girl he has been planning to molest. On camera, for all the world to see, the man's world falls apart.

Shows like "America's Most Wanted" and "To Catch a Predator" are taking to the airwaves in an attempt to nab sexual predators in a very public way. These shows often involve trying to nab predators — or would-be predators — who communicate online with people they believe to be underage kids.

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While some argue such programs are nothing more than tabloid pulp and that the media should leave police work to the police, others say this kind of programming performs a community service. They say it gets the message out that there are sex offenders among us who pose a threat to our kids.

"Media has done a tremendous service to our nation by bringing awareness to the issue. Proactive online investigations are effective in identifying and ultimately catching child sexual predators, when conducted by proper law enforcement authorities," said John Shehan, the Cyber Tipline program manager at the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.

"Awareness and the identification of these individuals is the first step in the process. …[But] trained law enforcement … should be conducting these types of investigations to ensure the highest possible conviction rate."

FOX's pioneering "America's Most Wanted" has profiled missing persons and fugitives wanted for violent crimes, often those on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted Fugitives list, since 1991. The crimes featured on the show include rape, white-collar crime, murder, armed robbery, gang violence, terrorism, drug trafficking, and child molestation. As of Aug. 3, the show has helped capture 897 fugitives and recover 50 missing persons, according to its Web site.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey recently launched "Oprah's Child Predator Watch List," a roundup of the FBI's most wanted sex offenders, in a campaign to catch pedophiles.

In Binghamton, N.Y., a local show, "Sex Offender Community Update," shows photos, names, addresses and profiles of fugitive sex offenders in the area.

On Dateline NBC's "To Catch A Predator," host Chris Hansen and police set up a fake home supposed to be that of an underage teen, and install cameras in areas where they believe any sexual contact may take place. Predators then show up at the home, expecting a rendezvous with an underage teenager they've met online.

Suspected pedophiles include "first-timers" and repeat sex offenders. The NBC Web site says the show has helped catch 129 male predators in a total of 14 days between 2004 and 2006; at least 71 have been convicted so far.

The show works with Perverted Justice, a group of volunteers who pose as children ages 10 to 15 in online chat rooms.

"The media is doing a great service of educating the public by making people more aware about things they wouldn’t know," said criminologist John Lombardi, who has over 30 years of specialized training in crime prevention and predatory crimes. "There is no such thing as prediction. You can't anticipate unless someone tells you."

Jonathan Palermo, 28, a graduate business student from Atlanta, said he watches "To Catch A Predator" and is appalled at what he sees.

"I knew it existed, but this show gives you an idea of the magnitude of the problem," said Palermo. He called the shows an effective tool to catch criminals and save potential victims. "The media needs to cover this and capture these people because law enforcement cannot keep up with all the crimes that are happening."

Tabloid Fodder or Real Journalism?

Judy Cornett is president of Safety Advocacy Zone, Inc., an advocacy group she founded after her 11-year-old son was raped in 1992 by a neighbor. The group follows sexual predators, warns neighbors of sex offenders living nearby and provides support to victims and their families. Cornett supports media coverage, law enforcement, and public involvement, and says none can effectively work independently of the other.

"[Pedophilia] is an epidemic. We can't just go door-to-door to raise awareness, or even just print it on a newspaper. It's not enough," Cornett said. "We need to get the media in these guys' faces. If we're not looking, they're going to be looking out for their next victim."

But some critics say these shows contribute more to a sense of hysteria than anything else, since most abuse cases involve children being molested in the home.

"Sexual predators running around, picking up children off the 'Net are not an epidemic … ["To Catch a Predator"] focuses on the equivalent of a sexual straw man, turning the stranger-predator into the 'epidemic,'" said Pierre Tristam, a columnist at the Daytona Beach News-Journal in Florida, who recently wrote a controversial article on the popular "Dateline" series and says the shows epitomize "tabloid pulp."

"[NBC's predator series] should quit borrowing from the shabby techniques of reality TV and return to the ethics and demands of journalism," Tristam said.

"Because people feel vulnerable and angry, shows that appear to be taking steps to solve the problem [of sexual violence against children] are appealing," added Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Florida who studies social policies dealing with sex offenders. "But [the shows] are not representative of 'typical' child sexual abuse cases," in which children are victimized by someone they know and trust.

She also said the vast media attention has made it appear that the rate of sex crimes is rising. "In actuality," she said, "sex crime rates, like other serious, non-sexual crimes, have declined substantially over the past decade, based on both official crime reports and victim reports."

According to Justice Department statistics, most sexual perpetrators are well known to their victims. Strangers committed only seven percent of sexual assaults against children in 2002. In 2000, child sex-abuse victims identified their abusers as family members in 34 percent of cases, and as acquaintances in 59 percent of cases.

"Journalists tend to oversimplify a problem that exists," Lombardi said. " ... The more that people get to know about what actual crime, the more they can prevent it from happening."

But "Dateline" spokesman Jenny Tartikoff said those involved in "To Catch a Predator" work hand-in-hand with law enforcement to promote public safety.

"Perverted Justice personnel coordinate their activities with law enforcement authorities," she said, adding that the show primarily involves reporting on police activities.

"Reporting on stories like 'Dateline's To Catch a Predator' requires a careful balance between maintaining social responsibility and upholding journalistic standards. At every turn, we have been transparent and disclosed our relationship with Perverted Justice, as well as with local law enforcement, to our audience."

Like "America's Most Wanted," "'Dateline' has received an overwhelming positive reaction" from viewers, parenting groups, government and school officials, Tartikoff said. "We are proud of our innovative and enterprising reporting, and will continue to follow this issue."

But lawyer Angelyn Gates of Chase Criminal Defense Attorneys noted that laws are designed to keep police officers from violating citizens' rights, and that the same rules don't apply to citizens who may be violating other citizens' rights.

"Police officers are trained in theory," Gates said. "The other major problem is when police officers go about investigating crimes, they know how to maintain evidence. Citizens don't."

Gates disagrees with the vigilante justice aspect of citizens risking their own lives, possibly violating others' rights and exposing these cases in the media.

"[Members of Perverted Justice] are not watching out for themselves by trying to pretend they're a child on the Internet," she said. "They're doing it for the thrill, fun, and notoriety they seem to be getting out of it."

Peter Johnson, a media columnist for USA Today who has reported on the show, said these shows are done in "the best tradition of investigative journalism" and often fill a gap that's missing in law enforcement.

"Posing as a child predator online in hopes of snagging these people is exactly what the media should be doing to root out people like this," said Johnson. "The Web is a wonderful place for these guys to seduce children …it's the ideal way to catch these people."

He added: "[These shows] have proven their point … Now it's time for authorities to take over and for [the programs] to concentrate on why law enforcement hasn't taken it over."