To what lengths should you go to get a story?
are a correspondent for a major television network. Your producers
have done a great deal of research about a national grocery chain;
they allege that some of its grocery stores are asking employees
to participate in unsanitary food-handling practices.
is an important story. Consumers may get sick if they eat tainted
food, you argue, and they have a right to know that a food store
is not handling its food in a safe manner. You want to make sure
this story airs on national television. You believe that to get
good footage you have to go into the store with cameras and film
the store’s workers actually engaging in unsafe practices. You need
As the television
correspondent, how will you get your story?
the store manager and request an on-site interview, with cameras.
Explain that you have some information that consumers will want
to know about and give the store a chance to show its side of
Just appear at the store one day, without advance notice to the
manager. That way you won’t tip off the staff that you’re onto
to be looking for a job in the store; complete an employment application
and actually get hired. Then, while you’re at work, use hidden
cameras to document the unsafe practices you see.
what lengths should you go to get a story?
The real story
1992. ABC News uses “undercover” workers to expose unsafe food-handling
practices by the Food Lion supermarket chain. The story attracts
national attention when it airs on “PrimeTime Live,” a televised
supermarket chain sues ABC News, but not for libel. (To sue for
libel, Food Lion would have to claim that the story is false and
that ABC News acted with “actual malice” in deliberately reporting
it.) Instead, Food Lion accuses ABC News of civil fraud, trespass
and breach of loyalty.
the video captures unsanitary food-handling practices and the accusations
against the supermarket appear to be true, a jury finds ABC News
guilty as charged and awards more than $5.5 million in punitive
damages to the supermarket company. The jurors find that ABC’s employees
have committed fraud because they lied on their employment applications
to Food Lion; jurors also find that ABC News employees are guilty
of trespassing on Food Lion’s property and of other deceptive practices.
They add $1,402 in compensatory damages to Food Lion, to cover the
wages the supermarket chain paid to the two ABC employees it hired.
the case does not end there. ABC News asks the court to reduce the
punitive damages, and the U.S. District Court judge agrees; he cuts
the award dramatically — to $315,000. In October 1997, Food Lion
accepts the reduced award, but ABC News continues to press for dropping
in October 1999, a federal appeals court throws out all but $2 of
the damage award the jury had ordered ABC News to pay. In a 2-1
ruling, the court upholds a conviction for trespassing and breach
of loyalty against the two who lied on their employment applications
(failing to disclose they were actually employees of ABC News).
In expressing its opinion, the court writes that Food Lion’s arguments
against the news organization were attempts at “an end-run” around
the First Amendment. While acknowledging that ABC News used deceptive
tactics, the judge notes that ABC’s aim was to help, not to harm,
reporters ever use hidden cameras in order to get a story? When
might such journalistic practices be justified and when not?
do you make of the following opinion, expressed by a respected journalism
main problem with undercover investigations is not the invasion
of privacy or faking credentials. The real problem is that undercover
observers find it very difficult, if not impossible, to go to
work with open minds … Such a strong bias could find incriminating
evidence anywhere …”
—Philip Meyer, “Food Lion case shows that
cameras, indeed, can lie”
Feb. 17, 1999, p. 15A.
ever deliberately fail to identify themselves as reporters in
order to get a story?
organizations worry about Food Lion’s tactics — suing not because
the story was false but because of things the reporters did to
get the story?
with permission, from “Media Ethics: Where Do You Draw the Line?”
by Rosalind G. Stark (Arlington, Va.: The Freedom Forum Newseum
Inc.), 1999, pp. 49- 51.