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Is It Appropriate for Reporters to 'Lurk' in Online Chat Rooms?


When journalists eavesdrop on Internet chat rooms, they run the risk of invading the privacy of the participants, as well as misrepresenting their purpose in being there. The following article was excerpted from the book, "Digital Dilemmas: Ethical Issues for Online Media Professionals."

Internet communications can be monitored secretly by one's peers through a behavior called "lurking.'' This is akin to eavesdropping, or perhaps listening to talk radio programs regularly without ever calling in.

Internet lurkers typically log on to chat rooms and discussion forums or join e-mail lists and newsgroups with little or no intent of sending messages; rather they prefer to read the communications of others.

But whereas the radio lurker cannot see the telephone numbers of those who call in, the online lurker usually has access to the e-mail addresses and screen names of anyone who sends a message or participates in a discussion.

There is nothing to prevent a lurker from copying a newsgroup or e-mail message from another subscriber and spreading it around the Internet, effectively making the original sender's e-mail address available to millions of other users. Likewise, lurkers in restricted chat rooms and forums may also be able to record messages and circulate them around the Net.

Lurking is practically impossible to prevent, though it does raise some ethical questions. For example, should journalists, academic researchers or public relations professionals gather information by lurking in chat rooms? If they do, what are their responsibilities with regards to the privacy of the other participants?

Should journalists identify themselves accurately and state their purposes upon entering a chat room or logging on to a message board? Is it OK to lurk for a while before identifying oneself? Is it OK to quote from a message posted in a chat room?

Naturally, there will be differences of opinion about what is proper online behavior. Many chat rooms, e-mail lists and other Internet communities have general rules of etiquette that users are expected to follow. Journalists doing research online might find it helpful to review these guidelines before joining a chat room or signing up for an e-mail list.

It is also worth noting that the practice of misrepresenting oneself while gathering information is generally discouraged. For example, the SPJ code of ethics states: "Journalists should ... avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.''

The SPJ code also reminds journalists to "recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention.''

Traditional ethical standards for academic researchers are somewhat similar. Anthropologists and others doing ethnographic studies are strongly cautioned against observing subjects under false pretenses.

Writing in a textbook for media researchers, journalism professor Susanna Hornig Priest argues that "although the group being studied may not need (or want) to know all the details of the ethnographer's research interests, they must know what the ethnographer is doing and be given the right to refuse.''

Case Study: Gathering Information From Chat Rooms

The Internet and the Web enable journalists to gather more information from more sources faster and with more flexibility. Researchers and reporters can now tap a wide array of sources that didn't exist prior to the Internet -- Web sites, chat rooms, bulletin boards, online forums and e-mail lists -- to harvest information about practically any subject imaginable.

But while online media provide easy access to information and diverse Internet communities, they present new ethical dilemmas. The medium can tempt journalists to conceal their own identity while trolling for information and "listening in'' to the conversations of Web-based communities and online discussion groups.

It also makes it much more difficult -- perhaps even impossible -- to verify that a person's identity is really what he or she claims it is -- age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender and all the other fundamental ways we categorize people become invisible online.

Not only is verification difficult but serious questions about privacy also arise. For example, how should a journalist doing research on a particular group or organization approach a restricted Web site or chat room that requires members to register before gaining entrance?

If a journalist did gain access to one of these sites either by registering as a reporter or through deceptive means, is it an invasion of privacy? From another angle, should journalists quote liberally from online interviews and chat sessions? Should they quote from them at all?

These questions and others come to the fore in the following case.

There's a Reporter in the Chat Room

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.

Ethical Dilemmas and Rationale

As a reporter schooled in traditional methods of researching and interviewing, Egan says this story presented ethical challenges unlike any she had ever encountered. At each step, she says she tried to follow the basic ethical principle -- do no harm -- though it was often difficult to determine whether or not a particular action could cause harm.

For example, when she began the story, Egan felt it was necessary to conceal her identity and age while registering to enter certain Web sites and chat rooms. Had she entered the correct information, Egan might have been denied access, thus losing the opportunity to locate and contact sources for her story.

As a general rule, failing to identify one's self accurately is seen as deceptive and, therefore, would be a highly suspect action. But Egan may have provided a service to readers by exposing the weaknesses of chat room registration systems.

To complicate matters further, Egan lurked in several chat rooms before revealing her identity. This allowed her to get a feel for the normal flow of communication among participants, which she felt was essential to advancing her knowledge of gay online culture. Had she announced herself immediately, she might have disrupted the environment.

It's important to note that many people join "gated'' online communities with the assumption that there will be some measure of privacy -- that they will be able to protect themselves from prying eyes. This raises an important question: Are members-only' Web sites and chat rooms public or private places?

Some journalists argue that they are public because, as Egan proved, it is relatively easy to circumvent registration procedures. Participants, they say, should assume that outsiders can and will eavesdrop on their discussions. In a sense, everything's public on the Net.

However, online journalism critic J.D. Lasica frowns on reporters lurking in chat rooms and argues that it's ethical only "when the subject is of significant public importance.'' Lasica also indicates that using quotes from chat room discussions or bulletin boards without permission is "considered bad form'' among avid Net users and may be unethical for journalists. This would be especially true of comments that are of a deeply personal nature and those made by minors.

Egan's research was further challenged by the simple fact that she could not always be sure exactly whom she was observing or even interviewing. Internet communication allows one to conceal his or her identity, just as Egan initially did, and to construct an online persona that is far different from one's physical self, as many of her sources did. How, then, could Egan verify that her sources were, indeed, gay teenagers, and how could they be sure that she was a writer working on an article for The New York Times Magazine?

Egan says that when she did introduce herself in chat rooms, she clearly stated her occupation and her intention to conduct interviews with gay teens. She instructed those who wished to participate to e-mail her and promised not to reveal their identities.

As for confirming the chat room's participants' identities, Egan says she paid close attention to the wording of each message she received and tried to verify the sex and age of key sources through follow-up telephone conversations. At one point, Egan reports, she stopped communicating with a source after sensing that he was much older than he claimed to be. As noted above, on only one occasion did she conduct a face-to-face interview with a source.

Lessons Learned and Suggested Protocols

Looking back, Egan recognizes that her lack of exposure to the Internet played a factor in making some of these issues harder to resolve. As she put it, "Technology changes the nature of communication,'' which forces writers to rethink traditional methods of conducting background research, doing interviews and choosing which statements to quote and which to leave out.

To some extent, the design of the medium will dictate how it is used. But at the same time, the ethical journalist must try to minimize harm while using that medium. Conflicts require creative solutions guided by the journalist's sense of social responsibility.

In many ways, Egan benefited from the fact that she wasn't under heavy deadline pressure -- the story was more than a year in the making. This allowed her to slowly get a feel for online culture and to build a high level of trust with many of her sources. Other journalists will, no doubt, have the added pressure of much tighter deadlines.

Lasica advises them to consult with colleagues who are more familiar with the medium and the norms of acceptable online behavior. If time permits, nonjournalists steeped in Internet culture can also be tapped for information.

Along with knowledge of the medium, Aly Col?n, 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 Col?n 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, Col?n 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.

This is an edited excerpt from the book "Digital Dilemmas: Ethical Issues for Online Media Professionals," published in Aug. 2003 by Iowa State Press. This excerpt is published with permission of the authors and publishers.

Related Links
'Digital Dilemmas: Ethical Issues for Online Media Professionals'
Aly Col?n bio
Iowa State Press
J.D. Lasica: 'A Scorecard for Net News Ethics'
Jennifer Egan: 'Lonely Gay Teen Seeking Same'
Jennifer Egan: Home page
Poynter Institute
Society of Professional Journalists: Code of Ethics
Susanna Hornig Priest bio
The New York Times Magazine
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