Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Reporters lurk in chat rooms

I never thought of this one until I read an article on it. But what's to prevent a journalist from taking part in online chatlines to get information or find out what's going on? They don't have to take part, just read the messages in an attempt to pick up a news tip or find out information on what's going on in other parts of the world. Should this be okay? I say, yes, because bloggers don't mind putting craploads of information out on the Internet, and treporters are only helping themselves find out what some readers are talking about. they're looking for any news or gossip to write about.

An example lurking or ethical behavior

In 1999, journalist and author Jennifer Egan was developing a story for The New York Times Magazine about gay and lesbian teenagers who were using the Internet to meet and interact with other homosexual teens. As part of her research, Egan spent several weeks visiting Web sites geared to the gay community and lurking in several chat rooms that were restricted to gay and lesbian teens.Though Egan was in her 30s, she easily gained access to the chat rooms by entering a fake identity and age on the site's registration form. After a period of observing communication among chat room participants, Egan posted a message identifying herself as a reporter.She also asked if anyone would like to participate in interviews about gay life online. Egan's initial request did not elicit much response, but in time she began receiving e-mail messages from teens who agreed to be interviewed for her story.Egan gradually learned that many of the teens were still living "straight'' lives offline and that the Internet had become a kind of refuge for them -- the only environment in which they could openly discuss their sexuality and interact with other gay teens. Some of these closeted kids were terrified that a family member or friend might uncover their online activities, so they created separate screen names and instant messaging services specifically for visiting gay chat rooms.

Eager to move beyond e-mail and Web chats, Egan began making telephone contact with some of her sources. In particular, she began having regular conversations with a 15-year-old boy who would become the primary subject of her story. During one conversation, Egan proposed the idea of traveling to his hometown in the rural South to conduct a face-to-face interview.The teenager agreed but warned Egan that they must be very careful to avoid being seen together. He feared that family or friends in his close-knit community would get suspicious if they saw him talking to an older stranger. After the interview, Egan and the teen continued to communicate online, exchanging numerous e-mail messages.Egan also continued her correspondence with other gay and lesbian teens she had met in chat rooms. As the teens became more comfortable with her, they began to discuss not just the loneliness of being a gay teen but also sexual activities they had engaged in, with both online and actual physical partners. Through these frank discussions, Egan learned that many of her sources had been pursued by much older adults who had been posing as teens in the chat rooms.After more than a year of research and writing, Egan's story, "Lonely Gay Teen Seeking Same,'' appeared as the cover story in the December 10, 2001, issue of The New York Times Magazine. The 8,000-word article stressed the value of the Internet for early exploration of sexual identity, especially for teens who are isolated and worried about their parents' and classmates' reactions.The piece also mentioned the danger posed by adult sexual predators and the lack of security surrounding chat rooms and Web sites that claim to be only for teens. Egan brought many of these points to life by quoting at length from e-mail and instant messaging interviews with her sources. In several passages, she quoted teens discussing their emotional and sexual relationships with boyfriends and girlfriends, some of whom they had met or had sex with online. Egan did not reveal the identity of her subjects, referring to them only by their first names or the first letter of their first name.

Aly Colón, ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, suggests that each reporter ask the four following questions before attempting to gather information from restricted Web sites and chat rooms:
• How do I plan to access the chat room or Web site?
• Will I identify myself as a reporter and state my intentions?
• Will I ask permission to quote participants or even to monitor their discussions?
• How will I authenticate what I read in the discussions?

In searching for answers to these questions Colón advises journalists to consider what they might do if they were in a comparable situation offline. Analogies from one medium to another can be difficult, but the exercise may be helpful in getting journalists to think more deeply about the privacy of others.No matter what form the medium takes, Colón argues, journalists should address newsgathering challenges with respect for their "core values.'' Put another way, the settings in the online world might be different -- virtual rather than physical -- and the identities might not always be authentic, but behind those identities in those virtual spaces are real human beings.Decisions about how to observe and communicate with them ought to be guided by basic ethical principles, as should decisions about how much information about them will be revealed to a public they might be hiding from.

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