What is a Sting Operation?

Article Details
  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 February 2020
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
  • Print this Article
Free Widgets for your Site/Blog
NYC subway riders can submit a “delay verification” request if public transit issues make them late for work.  more...

February 21 ,  1972 :  Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing.  more...

A sting operation uses deception to catch a criminal in the act. Usually relying on undercover law enforcement officers to act as accomplices or victims, a sting operates with the goal of gathering enough evidence to bring about criminal charges. Though often glorified in movies and television, there is often great controversy over whether a sting operation constitutes entrapment, which is illegal in many regions. More controversial still is a journalistic sting operation, in which reporters attempt to gather and expose criminal information by going undercover.

Not all crimes leave easy trails of evidence behind. Prostitution, for instance, is nearly impossible to prove without direct evidence of money being exchanged for sexual services. A sting operation works by sending credible observers, such as police officers, into a situation where crime is thought to occur. The sting officer must walk a fine line between legitimately setting up a sting and entrapment, which involves coercing or pressuring people who would not ordinarily commit a crime into doing so.


The line between a sting and entrapment is very fuzzy; some countries do not even permit sting operations because of this ethical battlefield. According to the United States Department of Justice, a sting may naturally include situations where undercover agents offer enticements to potential criminals, in effect creating the opportunity for a crime to occur. Whether offering a bribe to a politician constitute a legitimate sting or entrapment may depend entirely on the judge or jury's opinion in any given case. For this reason, stings can sometimes be prohibitively expensive if there is a strong possibility of an entrapment defense.

There are a few basic elements to any sting operation, though a sting may last for minutes or years depending on the situation. Usually, a deception is set up by using undercover agents or other deceptive items, such as a rigged computer sold to a person suspected of illegal hacking. Often, stings focus on a targeted individual or group, such as a mayor suspected of taking bribes or men visiting a particular brothel. Successful stings also tend to end with an arrest or crackdown, where evidence recorded by the operation is enough to warrant an arrest, or the target actually engages in a crime.

Journalistic sting operations may involve all of the elements of a traditional police sting, but are conducted by reporters and are sometimes even more controversial. In the first decade of the 21st century, the United States, United Kingdom, and India were all immersed in serious debate over the implications of journalistic stings on the role of journalism. Critics suggest that journalistic stings are motivated by the desire to increase ratings and gain attention through exclusive stories on exposure. Proponents argue that journalists can sometimes overturn criminal enterprises that police are unable or unwilling to manage, thereby helping to reduce crime.


You might also Like


Discuss this Article

Post 4

@Melonlity -- I am not sure that having more journalistic sting operations out there would result in the government conspiring with journalists in criminal cases. That tactic has been tried by the government for years (with journalists and other people) and has been sniffed out pretty well by defense lawyers.

In other words, there are protections against such activities. That being the case, journalists wanting to get involved in sting actions probably do want to uncover shady things and sell newspapers. Nothing wrong with doing those things at all. Both of those goals have been exactly the things that have driven reporters and newspapers to break news for years.

Post 3

@Soulfox -- There could be a number of problems with journalistic stink operations. For one thing, evidence from them can be used in court to convict criminals so long as there is no proof that the journalist was acting as a government agent.

That being the case, you just know some law enforcement officials would pull journalists in to do stink operations and instruct them to deny they are working for the government if caught and questions.

Second, those operations can be dangerous. Criminals tend to protect their enterprises and many will harm or kill people they think are threatening their businesses.

There are some other reasons these are terrible ideas, but I do believe I have made my point.

Post 2

I would think a journalistic sting would be find and dandy as those can be far more effective at fighting crime than undercover sting operations run by the police. The problem with the police engaging in such operations is that there is only so far they can go before the stink becomes entrapment and evidence gathered during the stink cannot be used in court.

Journalists don't have to observe those limits and any evidence they collect could be used because it wasn't sought by the police. If the overall goal of reducing crime is achieved, then what is the problem?

Post your comments

Post Anonymously


forgot password?