ABC and Food Lion: The Ethics Questions

This article originally appeared in RTNDA Communicator, April 1997 issue, page 56, and is used with permission.

The legal battle between ABC and Food Lion continues, and so does the debate about the ethics issues surrounding the use of hidden cameras and undercover reporting. This case clearly demonstrates how courtroom verdicts are cast in the extremes of black and white while ethical decisions most often emerge from situations painted in multiple shades of gray.

With the law, juries vote on right or wrong after listening to polarizing arguments from two sides of a case. With ethics, there are no defined forums like a witness stand or jury box, and there is no volume of case law. It is the public, and to some degree professional colleagues, who will judge the moral positions of both this major network news organization and this huge supermarket corporation.

In the court of law a federal jury said ABC News and PrimeTime Live journalists trespassed and committed fraud while researching accusations that Food Lion supermarkets sold spoiled meat. It is important to note that the supermarket chain did not directly challenge in court the truth of that 1992 PrimeTime Live report. Food Lion bypassed a libel suit, undermining ABC's reporting methods with a side-door legal strategy focusing on the falsification of employment applications and the failure of the workers to fulfill their assigned duties. The jury bought Food Lion's argument, and, seemingly arbitrarily, decided on a $5.5 million punishment. Quite appropriately, an appeals court will review the application of law and the jury's decision.

The debate over ethics in this case continues in the court of public opinion, as well as in newsrooms and corporate boardrooms across the country. While there are legitimate questions to pose about the morality of Food Lion's actions, most of the discussion focuses on journalism ethics and issues of honesty, accuracy and fairness.

There is a pivotal question: Is it ever justifiable for a journalist to violate the principle of honesty to honor the principle upon which journalism is founded, a duty to provide the public with meaningful, accurate and comprehensive information about significant issues?

There are absolutists who will argue that a journalist should never lie, no matter what is at stake. That, I suggest, is an unrealistic position that avoids the essence of ethical decision-making and ignores the unique and essential role journalists play in a democratic society. Ethics involves making difficult choices when faced with competing values, conflicting principles and multiple stakeholders; ethical decision-making often involves choosing a course of action among several options that each carry negative consequences.

Journalists can and do face these agonizing dilemmas when reporting on issues of national security, government corruption or public safety. ABC News encountered such ethical dilemmas in the past in deciding to use deception and hidden cameras to get to the truth. PrimeTime Live journalists went undercover to produce reports on abhorrent treatment of patients in Veterans Affairs hospitals and in board and care homes, spotlighting government regulatory failures that jeopardized the welfare of patients.

To be sure, hidden cameras are overused and misused by both network and local television, and journalists too often use forms of deception and misrepresentation as a shortcut in their reporting. These tools have extremely sharp edges, and when improperly used they harm innocent people and erode journalistic integrity. When these tools are overused they become dull, losing their impact.

Hidden cameras and any form of deception should be used judiciously and rarely. They should be reserved for those exceptional stories of great public interest involving great harm to individuals or system failure at the highest levels. Furthermore, deception and hidden cameras should be used only as a reporting tool of last resort, after all other approaches to obtaining the same vital information have been exhausted or appropriately ruled out. And, news organizations that choose to use deception and hidden cameras have an obligation to assure their work meets the highest professional standards.

ABC must examine its journalism techniques in light of those standards to determine if the reporting was solid. But there is still this critical question: If ABC News used the threat to public health as a reason for the extensive undercover investigation and the use of deception, why did it take them so long to ring the warning bell? Why did they wait six months after they went undercover before PrimeTime Live aired the report?

ABC has good reasons to appeal the legal ruling in the Food Lion case. It is equally important that ABC hold its own news reporting to the highest standards. Journalists need considerable freedom to do their work on behalf of the public. They have a responsibility to honor that freedom by being ethical and excellent at what they do.

There is no judge nor jury to offer a verdict on whether ABC measured up to such high ethical standards in the Food Lion case. The public is rendering that verdict.

  • Bob Steele

    Bob Steele asks and answers lots of questions on a wide range of ethics, values, reporting and leadership issues. In his role as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values he has taught hundreds of workshops and thousands of journalists and media leaders at Poynter seminars since 1989.


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