Online Predators: Why Can't the Media Ever Get It Right?

A couple of weeks ago, Canadian media outlets reported that, across the country, 44,970 computers were actively engaged in trading child pornography -- 15,140 of them in Ontario.

The numbers came from cyber-sleuthing done by Flint Waters, a special agent for the Wyoming Attorney General and commander of the Internet Sex Crimes Against Children task force in the U.S. Waters developed software that can track IP addresses associated with child porn images traded on peer-to-peer networks.

As a result of the software probe, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) charged 23 people with possessing or distributing child pornography.

In the newspaper business, this is what's known as a "Holy shit, Mabel!" story. As in, an average Canadian husband reads the daily paper, stumbles on the story and shouts to his wife: "Holy shit, Mabel, says here about 45,000 Canadian perverts are running around free, sharing kiddie porn on that Internet thing! Arrested some of them though. Lordy."

But let's step back from those numbers a bit. Mabel's husband is making a reasonable assumption from the story. Since 45,000 Canadian computers are sharing child pornography there must be at least 45,000 Canadian child pornographers breaking the law.

If that's true then the number would almost equal the 49,000 Canadians convicted of all crimes of violence -- including homicide, attempted murder, sexual assault, other sexual offenses, criminal harassment and robbery -- in 2006, according to 2005-2006 Statistics Canada figures.

And, if there are about 15,000 Ontario computers involved in child porn, then that's 75 percent of the total of all people in Ontario convicted of all violent crimes in the province in 2006 (about 20,000).

Neither of those numbers makes sense given that, according to a 2007 report from U.S. Department of Justice, all child sex offenses (including child pornography, sex transportation, and sex abuse) make up only 2.5 percent of all crime in the U.S. I think it's safe to assume the percentage in Canada would be about the same, if not less.

In reality, only 23 people were charged in what the Toronto Star called a "massive child porn crackdown." And, since all 23 are innocent until proven guilty and they have yet to have their day in court, we don't know how many will actually be convicted.

So, why am I writing about this? A couple of reasons.

First, this story is a classic case of mainstream media slipping casually into the "Internet as source of all evil" mindset. Yes, child pornography is heinous and those who either abuse children and/or collect child pornography (two very different pathologies) should be stopped and punished. But, media outlets should be very careful about allowing pre-built frames to color their news coverage.

The average reader of mainstream media, for example, would assume that not only are there tens of thousands of Canadian child porn purveyors, but also that: Internet predators are pedophiles; the Internet has increased child abuse; most adults trap children online by pretending to be youngsters; children are lured into real world meetings where they are killed or abused.

In fact, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, none of that is true.

The Center, which stresses that online sexual solicitation is a serious issue, points out that Internet predators don't go after prepubescent children, they target adolescents. And while media outlets report that fourteen percent of youth are sexually solicited, less than four percent are.

The Center's researchers also say that only about five percent of Internet predators pretend to be other youth in chat rooms and only five per cent of real world meetings between youth and adults result in violence.

The Center's researchers also point out that the World Wide Web took off in the early 90s. But, from 1993 to 2005 annual rates of sexual assaults on teens have fallen by 52 percent.

Not only have overall sexual assault rates dropped, but, as Peter Reilly of the educational debate site The Pulse points out, almost none of it has anything to do with strangers or online activity.

Over 90 percent of child abuse and sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members, 79 percent of it by parents, according to Reilly. You can blame an additional five percent on legal guardians, childcare workers and residential care staff. Of what's left, only a very thin slice of it occurred on the Web.

Not really the story you get in mainstream media, is it?

But, apart from the daily press getting the story wrong, why does this matter?

Because the IP address-sniffing software that the OPP relied on to arrest alleged child pornographers can also be used on other sorts of peer-to-peer file sharing. And, as I've pointed out before, a good deal of peer-to-peer sharing is entirely legal.

And the more the Web is cast as the source of all evil and vice, the easier it is for law enforcement agencies and governments to pick at our online rights, especially if record and movie company lobbyists are egging them on.

Sexual assault, child abuse and the sharing and collecting of images that depict it are heinous crimes that need prevention and punishment. No doubt.

But media outlets and journalists, both online and off, need to stand back from easy frames and misconceptions and put the news about those crimes in context. We need to ask tough questions and consider agendas or we risk throwing the bath water out with the babies.

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