‘Think of the children’. Yes, but also think about the journalism

As friends will know, I have a habit of relating almost everything in life to the Simpsons. I blame it on the fact that while I’m an American, I’ve worked for British news organisations for almost 10 years now, and the Simpsons is one of the few common cultural touchstones that we both have. But as the Culture show on the BBC pointed out tonight, the Simpsons while being really good for a laugh is also brilliant for its social commentary. One of the clips they played was from an episode called “Much Apu about Nothing“. After a lone bear wanders into Springfield, Homer whips everyone into an anti-bear frenzy. The chanting mob marches on City Hall.

Homer: Mr. Mayor, I hate to break it to you, but this town is infested by bears.

Moe: Yeah, and these ones are smarter than the average bear. They swiped my pic-a-nic basket.

Helen: [frantic] Think of the children!

Quimby: All right, I promise to take swift and decisive action against these hibernating hucksters.

“Think of the children.” The phrase is one of those debate stoppers. It’s akin to Godwin’s law – invoke the Nazis and short circuit a discussion. In the US, it used to be enough to call a proposal in Congress ‘socialist’ to stop it dead in its tracks. These arguments can sweep aside rational debate on issues and nullify evidence by pressing people’s emotional emergency stop.

I thought of this after I was interviewed on BBC World today about MySpace and registered sex offenders. The root of the story was that the popular social networking had banned 29,000 convicted sex offenders, up from 7,000 in May.

My professional take on this was that this was a PR battle between MySpace, which wants to be seen as being responsible, and a coalition of attorneys general who want to use the emotive subject of sexual predators to increase their political standing. MySpace was pretty clear in the PR bump it wanted by calling on other social networking sites to follow their lead in banning sexual predators. The site is under pressure from a coalition of state attorneys general in the US to do yet more to make sure that sex offenders are not allowed to use the MySpace. The attorneys general are proposing predictable solutions that support their political ambitions but do little to address the real issues.

“Think of the children”. What is the problem we’re trying to solve? It is framed as a problem of convicted sex offenders preying on and abducting children while MySpace and other social networking sites does little to protect them. The problem is much more complex. The BBC story quotes that there are 600,000 registered sex offenders in the US. Are all of these 600,000 paedophiles? No, as I said in the interview, at least one of those registered sex offenders was guilty of “baring her ass out a bus window in college”, Regina Lynn writes on Wired’s Sex Drive blog. Another man was placed on a sex offender list for public urination.

In the interview, I also tried to question the presentation of the internet as a no-go place for children and teens. What is the threat? Stephanie Booth pointed me in the direction of a report in 2000 in the US that showed of statutory rape cases, only 7% were internet-initiated. Steph speaks widely about child safety and the internet. She gave me more information than I possibly could have repeated in four minutes. Rather than re-iterate her arguments, I’ll link to two excellent posts she wrote. MySpace Banning Sex Offenders: Online Predator Paranoia and Parents, Teenagers, Internet, Predators, Fear…

The fundamental question is that the facts don’t support the standard presentation of blogs, social networks, chat rooms or the internet in general as a dangerous place for children. As a matter of fact, in research presented by David Finklehor in testimony before the Congressional Internet Caucus in the US, hardly any children under 13 were victims of online sexual predators. Dr Finklehor is the director of the Crimes Against Children Resource Center and co-director of the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire. Most of these cases are teens. Most of them know the age of the people they are communicating with online. These are cases of criminal seduction, as Dr Finklehor called it.

I didn’t really get to go into any of this in four minutes, as you can imagine. I was asked why MySpace didn’t turn over information about sex offenders to authorities in the US. I would have liked to know the exact information that they were being asked. The US Department of Justice has in the past used the pretext of trying to collect information about sexual predators for wide-ranging requests from internet companies. Google is the only company we know was asked it because they contested the request as overly broad. I was asked why MySpace didn’t block the registered sex offenders from setting up a profile in the first place. I questioned exactly what it took to get on the list. (See above.)

I’m not taking issue with the interviewer, Mishal Husain. She’s an old friend of mine, and she’s intelligent and an excellent interviewer. I am not trying to minimise the concern that parents had. As a matter of fact, after the interview, another old friend was very concerned about his 13-year-olds profile on MySpace. I should have asked how she got an account seeing as I thought the minimum age was 14, but after all of the precautions that he had taken, including having a chat with her and moving the computer into a public space, the kitchen, I told him that he was doing the right thing and just to keep communicating to her about her activities online.

I am taking an issue with the format and the journalistic assumptions made. Yes, there is a problem here, but it’s not the one that is being shouted in the headlines. The facts don’t support the sensationalist story of a predator lurking behind every MySpace profile or blog post. As Steph points out in her posts, the threat to youth isn’t in them having blogs or being on social networks. The problem is one of emotionally vulnerable teens being preyed upon by opportunistic adults. It’s more complicated and less emotive than saying: Keep the paedos off of MySpace.

How we can we possibly fashion effective public policy if the debates are so simplistic? Isn’t it our jobs as journalists to question the emotive grand standing of politicians, not simply repeat it? Isn’t it a disservice to repeat misleading quotes without context? How can we have these discussions in four-minute – or worse one minute 30 – chunks? That only leaves room for sound bites filled with false dichotomies that bleed the nuance and complexity out of issues.

Contrast this with the discussion online. It’s filled with complexity, nuance and links to source material that allows concerned parents to weigh the evidence. I’ll link to a few more here to give a sense of what I mean. Brandon Watson of IMSafer, a service that scans IM conversations for ‘predator issues‘, responds to posts by danah boyd and Steph. I agree with Danah that this is a PR exercise for politically opportunistic state AGs, but I’m not sure that I would under-estimate the PR office of Fox Interactive Media, parent company of MySpace. In Brandon’s post, he mentions reports by Dateline NBC. Anastasia Goodstein on the excellent Media Shift blog for PBS in the United States says of the Dateline NBC series: “If I was a parent, this would scare the crap out of me.” But Anastasia adds: “The problem with this message is that it’s both fear-based and divorced from reality.” There are some good follow up comments on Anastasia’s post.

Is there any way to bring this level of complexity and depth to the discussions that news organisations host, whether on air or online? There has to be, but we have to take the responsibility to make it happen.

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