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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Thursday, July 26th, 2007

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

Posted by Kevin Anderson

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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10 Responses to “‘Think of the children’. Yes, but also think about the journalism”

  1. Kathleen Fitzpatrick Says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful response to the issues, Suw, and thanks for bringing the question of journalistic focus into the discussion. My own sense of this issue (as I posted earlier today — http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/more-anxiety-other-obsolescences) stems from a previous study I did (entitled _The Anxiety of Obsolescence_) of images of television in post-war US novels: novelists have in the last few decades repeatedly represented television as a damaging force in US culture, producing a dehumanization, deindividuation, and general dumbing down of the populace. That transformation into a nation of couch potatoes resulted, as the novelists themselves were the first to suggest, from the fact that everyone stopped reading, and instead tuned into the idiot box.

    The facts don’t bear that out, however; more books are printed and sold each year in the US than in the year before. My argument is that it’s useful for the novelists to argue that television is damaging the public and driving the novel into obsolescence, because the novelist can thereby create what amounts to a cultural wildlife preserve for the novel, in which it can develop and maintain an elite audience that thinks of itself as marginalized by the mainstream.

    My sense of the mainstream news coverage of issues like sexual predators on MySpace is much the same: as conventional news organs feel themselves threatened — for audience share, for cultural centrality — by newer media forms, it’s in their interests to find ways to represent the damage that those newer forms are ostensibly doing to the public. In this way, television news outlets can come to be seen as “family values” oriented, as standing up for the threatened, marginalized desires of the folks who are ostensibly being left behind by all this newness.

    None of this is to say that no one has ever done anything bad on the Internet. But it is to say that television and print news sources have deeper motives than simply “the truth” in making sure that such stories get wide dissemination.

  2. Jay Blair Says:

    There is nothing complex or nuanced about the post by danah byrd that merely makes a simplistic and unsupported statement that this is an exercise for politically opportunistic state AGs.

    Neither of the AGs quoted in the articles about MySpace are at risk politically. Both AGs have declared that they are not seeking higher office. What is the opportunism?

    Yes elected officials have to be reponsive to their constituents no matter how safe their seats are, but reflecting the desires of constituents is not neccessarily political opportunism. In fact, it often is not.

    It is also not nuanced to state, as many do, that this is a parent’s responsibility and not a government responsibility. Discussions about the safe use of the internet should be a parent’s responsibility, but not solely a parent’s responsibility. When there are other messangers, including elected officials or teachers or corporations, who share parents concerns, it can re-enforce the message to children.

    Sometimes steps must be taken to create laws that enhance safety becuase parents can not or will not take certain steps. Those are actually complex and nuanced decisions and if you read the proposals by the State AGs and responses to those ideas from corporations running sites, I think you will find there is no simplicity to either side. Rather than finding complex and nuanced blog posts, I actually find that the discussions on blogs simplify these proposals, or more often, the writers have not even read them.

    In any event, not all parents are sophisticated or “nuanced”. Sometimes it takes a jolt, like “29,000 offenders are kicked off” to remind them of the need to check in with what their kids are doing on the internet or elsewhere. This should not be offensive, it should be welcomed as more parents are brought into an area of their children’s lives that they may not understand.

    Finally, it is such an oversimplification to say that politicians or companies have a PR effort and can get printed what they want. In my experience that is simply not true. The media prints what it wants to print. Elected state AGs talk a lot about parental responsibility in conjunction with corporate responsibility, or lack thereof. Whether a reporter chooses to print that or not is the reporter’s decision.

  3. Kathleen Fitzpatrick Says:

    Good grief. *Kevin.* Teach me to read a byline, in addition to a column.

  4. Phil Says:

    Sounds like a tough gig. Saying “I don’t know” in public is always hard - and saying “I don’t know, *you* don’t know and most importantly *those people who say they do know actually don’t know either*” is even harder.

    “both fear-based and divorced from reality” is very neat (cf. Team McCann.) Perhaps the underlying problem is that we blur the line between the emotional reality of fear and its validity or appropriateness - so to deny the reality of what people are afraid of is tantamount to denying their right to be afraid, which is an insult to them personally.

  5. Stephanie Booth Says:

    Great article, Kevin. I think media coverage is a huge issue, here — and I’ve actually made a call to journalists in my area (French-speaking Switzerland) to write about MySpace’s action here in the light of the facts we have, rather than the sensational angle.

    Quick manual trackback to my post in French about this: http://climbtothestars.org/archives/2007/07/27/myspace-supprime-les-profils-de-29000-delinquants-sexuels/

  6. Kevin Anderson Says:

    Jay,

    Thanks for the detailed comment. As for the motivations of the AGs, I’ll cede that in the broader debate about youth safety online this is immaterial. It doesn’t automatically disqualify their concerns or their proposals. Their proposals should be evaluated based on whether or not they address the issue of youth safety.

    My point, and Steph’s point (in the interest of disclosure, Steph is a friend and we’ve spoken about this topic at length) and Anastasia’s point really is the nature and scope of the problem. Who is at risk? What is the risk? And what are the risk factors that lead to these ‘criminal seductions’?

    As a journalist, I know that anecdotes are effective in personalising a story, but they can also be misleading in framing a story. Does the anecdote that is chosen for a story accurately represent the problem? That really was what I was getting at.

    Politicians and advocates choose anecdotes that support their framing of an issue. That’s fair. Their role is different than mine as a journalist. They are trying to persuade the public and their colleagues that a specific course of action should be taken.

    My job as a journalist is different. I have to choose anecdotes that fairly represent the situation. Anecdotes personalise, but statistics help contextualise. Yes, there are horror stories of abduction and violence that would frighten any parent, but do these represent the broader reality of the problem?

    Dr Finklehor said in testimony before the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee a more representative anecdote of the problem is this:

    “So for example, Jenna – this is a pretty typical case – 13-year-old girl from a divorced family, frequented sex-oriented chat rooms, had the screen name “Evil Girl.” There she met a guy who, after a number of conversations, admitted he was 45. He flattered her, gave – sent her gifts, jewelry. They talked about intimate things. And eventually, he drove across several states to meet her for sex on several occasions in motel rooms. When he was arrested in her company, she was reluctant to cooperate with the law enforcement authorities.”

    This is a troubled young girl who has been criminally abused by an older man. It is a problem, and it requires a broad response from society - from government, companies, parents, teachers, media, etc. However, it is a much more complex and much more difficult problem than is being presented in the media and in many public policy debates.

    As for the proposals, I’ll let a couple of AGs speak in their own words.

    I found the North Carolina proposal online:

    http://www.ncdoj.com/DocumentStreamerClient?directory=WhatsNew/&file=S132%20Summary%20final.pdf

    CT AG’s Richard Blumenthal’s May testimony is here:
    http://www.ct.gov/AG/cwp/view.asp?a=2129&q=333604

    For a counterpoint, Mark Sullivan on PCWorld expresses concerns about the NC proposal:
    http://blogs.pcworld.com/staffblog/archives/004990.html

    I certainly am not saying that no action should be taken. I also did not say in my post that it is entirely the role of the parents to deal with this, to quote you ‘as many do’. I am not a person who believes that just because one proposal could use some work (or doesn’t work) means that no law could be crafted to address a problem that society believes needs to be addressed.

    There is also an education role for parents and students. As someone in part responsible for an online community, companies that host online communities also bear some responsibility in maintaining a safe environment for their users.

    Now, to address whether blogs and online discussions about this issue are complex or simplistic. You mentioned danah boyd’s brief post to support your assertion that the online debate lacks nuance. You’ve chosen one post out of several that I linked to in support of your claim. Steph, for one, has written three, extremely detailed posts in the last two days on the subject. danah was simply linking to one of those posts. Also that post by danah is just part of her extensive research on this issue and other online issues, and it is welcome that she makes her work publicly available and blogs. For those not familiar with danah, she was one of the people chosen to speak to the same Congressional panel about youth safety online as Dr Finklehor.

    Phil, I think it’s a little hyperbolic to say that Anastasia or anyone is “denying (parents’) right to be afraid”, and I think it’s a stretch to characterise my comments as a personal insult to parents. As I said in my post, I recognise parents are afraid. Fear does not always have a rational basis. However, the question must be asked, what are they afraid of? If they are afraid of someone coming into their house and abducting their child because they found the child on the internet, that’s not really happening in large numbers based on recent case studies, not just the statistics of statutory rape cases from 2000. (Jay, I agree that this figure is questionable in the context of social networking because mass use of those sites amongst youth didn’t happen until the last two years.) Certainly, we can find anecdotes that present the story of abduction. Certainly those stories are harrowing and deeply worrying to parents.

    My concern is that by presenting anecdote after anecdote in the media of cases like these that we misrepresent the scope of that problem and needlessly scare parents. It gets eyeballs to watch TV and people to buy papers, certainly, but it doesn’t represent the majority of the cases.

    I’m not questioning the validity of anyone’s fear. However, fear certainly should not be the only motivation in our public response to problems. And if we in the media are needlessly frightening parents, we are being irresponsible.

  7. Phil Says:

    I think it’s a little hyperbolic to say that Anastasia or anyone is “denying (parents’) right to be afraid”, and I think it’s a stretch to characterise my comments as a personal insult to parents.

    Good heavens. Perhaps I should have said upfront that I’m completely in agreement with your post and with Anastasia’s comments. (I also agree with the rest of your comment!) I wasn’t advancing either of those positions - just trying to understand what goes on when emotional reactions are given more airtime and greater credence than critical thinking.

    I mean, this isn’t the first news story where journalists have hyped up emotional responses and downplayed inconvenient evidence - I don’t even think it’s the first such story this week. So, why do intelligent writers do it - why do they think this kind of approach makes sense? I agree with Suw’s general point about evidence - science is hard sometimes, especially if you’ve spent most of your life avoiding it - but I think there’s something else going on as well. I think there’s an increasingly widespread belief that emotion is authentic - and that what’s authentic is true. So, if you tell somebody that what they’re upset about doesn’t actually exist, you’re not helping them but challenging them - denying the truth of their fear, so to speak.

  8. Kevin Anderson Says:

    Phil,

    Thanks so much for clarifying. I didn’t know originally whether you were just describing what you saw as a ‘right to fear’ or asserting a right to fear. Sincere apologies.

  9. RIck Lane Says:

    Jay Blair states that the two AGs, Cooper and Blumental, that are quoted have declared that they are not running for higher office. How naive. Ask any local politician in their respective states and they will tell that both are trying to position themselves for the next governor’s race.

    They may not have declared, but they are already running. If they were truly interested in going after sexual predators, they would have followed the Florida AGs lead and ask for more law enforcement resources to attack the problem, not make social networking the easy political scapegoat.

  10. Pete Carr Says:

    Reference the remarks concerning the Dateline NBC program.

    “To Catch a Predator” is not a news program but a reality show, driven by ratings. Some time ago, the host, Chris Hansen, mentioned the “50,000 Internet predators online” statistic. I tracked down the origin of that, and came to the conclusion that it could not be substantiated by any statistical evidence.

    I noticed that after I had posted a news article taking that mythical statistic to task, the statistic is no longer used.
    http://www.chatmag.com/news/071506_50000_predators_myth.html

    To be sure, there are predators on the Internet, predators of both children and adults. Scammers, spammers, and con artists of all flavors are active, and it is up to the individual to be on guard.

    It is also up to the individual to question statistics and emotionally charged TV shows and news articles. We look to the journalism community for fair, unbiased information in order to make informed decisions that affect our lives. Creating panic and using doctored statistics does not serve that process.