CNET News.com's Daniel Terdiman reported yesterday
on a controversial issue concerning the virtual world of Second Life
, where a tiny fraction of adult users adopt the appearance of minors and engage in sexual situations. This apparently-legal behaviour has been the subject of heated debate within the official Second Life
discussion forum, and the merits of Terdiman's report, at the time of this writing, is currently being discussed by residents of that virtual world.
Terdiman chatted with me yesterday via instant message about the story and his experiences in putting it together. With his permission, I've reformatted the transcript in the form of complete sentences for easier reading.
After a raging debate in the Second Life
(SL) discussion forum boiled over, one SL member took the issue to News.com's public comments section. "I was tipped off by the commenter on my Linden Lab funding story," Terdiman recalls. "This was an interesting situation. It quickly became clear to me that the person who posted in the News.com comments section was trying to kick up some shit, and was accusing certain groups of deplorable behavior." Terdiman was motivated to investigate, contacting the whistle-blower and a leader of the accused group directly. "In talking to my sources and reading the SL forums, I became convinced that age play was worth a story, but I quickly became convinced that the groups this person was accusing were likely not involved in age play."
To Terdiman's surprise, Linden Lab, maker of Second Life
contacted him before he was ready to approach the company. "I have been a fan of Second Life and Linden Lab for nearly three years, so I have to think that I bring a unique perspective in the mainstream media to a story about this subject. I think that Linden Lab knew that, and that's why they were very frank with me. They encouraged me to talk directly with residents."
"This experience was a good example of SL being a community," Terdiman says. "Once the word was out that I was looking for residents to talk to, people started to contact me directly. People were fairly approachable." Despite the available sources, Terdiman found it a challenge to determine what was really going on, if anything. "I was not able to find anyone who had participated directly in sexual age play who was willing to talk to me, and that would have been a good thing to have for the story. I want to make it clear--and I do think it came through in the story--that from the outset, my goal was to write a balanced story about this subject."
It's fair to say that virtual world sex and violence has never before enjoyed more prominence in the mainstream media, so with a story about adults masquerading as minors for apparently-dubious purposes, societal outcry seems a logical response. Terdiman thinks that Linden Lab, which has promised to investigate any illegal behaviour in Second Life
, "has a very good defense for anything that's going on. The common carrier rules (I believe that's the doctrine) state that companies running services like SL are not responsible for the behavior of their users, so long as they take action when they are informed
of something against the law, and age play is not against the law."
Although he's an experienced journalist, Terdiman learned a few things about reporting on touchy issues such as age play. "I learned that a lot of my sources wanted nothing to do with the story," he says, adding "when you're writing about issues related to things like children and sex, even when the children are really adults, it's very, very sensitive ground. Therefore, maybe for one of the first times in my memory as a reporter, I had to walk very gingerly around an issue in the hopes of not tainting someone who didn't deserve to be tainted with something that could hurt them forever. That's hard when you're doing a story that's exposing--to a mainstream audience--something as seedy as sexual age play."
"As for advice to other reporters," he says, "It's tempting to go nuts on a story like this and to follow a sensationalist angle. Look at all the Grand Theft Auto coverage from last year. But it's important to remember that nothing is as simple as it sounds at first. Be fair to all sides."