Investigative News Reporting on Trial in US

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

Investigative News Reporting on Trial in US


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Undercover techniques used by journalists are increasingly coming under scrutiny in the nation's courts.

Those targeted by investigative news operations are challenging the methods rather than the accuracy of the reporting - and often winning sympathy from jurors. Lawyers and media experts who specialize in First Amendment issues say such lawsuits are already exerting a "chilling effect" on investigative reporting in the United States.

It is a trend that came into sharp focus this week when a 12-member jury in North Carolina decided that ABC television should pay $5.5 million in damages to the Food Lion grocery chain because ABC's reporters posed as employees and used hidden cameras to uncover alleged sales of spoiled meat at some of its stores. Food Lion disputed the claims aired in a 1992 "PrimeTime Live" report. But the accuracy of the report was not contested in the suit. Instead, lawyers for Food Lion argued that two of the network's reporters engaged in fraud, trespassing, and breach of loyalty by completing job applications and working at Food Lion when the entire time they were really employed by ABC. The lawyers said that as Food Lion employees, the ABC reporters had an obligation to prevent spoiled meat from being sold, rather than permitting the potential sale of spoiled meat while filming it for a news report. The jury deliberated for more than 30 hours over six days. It rejected Food Lion's request for up to $1.9 billion in punitive damages, but found that ABC used improper and illegal techniques while uncovering the story. Even within journalistic circles, an ethical debate exists over whether it is justifiable for a news organization to misrepresent itself while newsgathering. Some in the industry say it isn't, but others note American journalism's tradition of using such techniques - dating even before muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair - to expose corruption and wrongdoing. "Americans are uncomfortable with misrepresentation and uncomfortable with the idea of deceit even if the goal is a positive one," says Sandra Baron of the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York. "At the same time, I think the population generally respects and is interested in the kinds of information generated by investigative reporting including undercover techniques." Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., says the verdict is an indication of one jury's priorities. "There probably weren't any members of this jury who had gotten sick from buying bad food from a supermarket," he says. …

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