Public Opinion on Investigative Reporting in the 1990s: Has Anything Changed since the 1980s?
Willnat, Lars, Weaver, David H., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly
In view of the recent developments in public attitudes toward the use of investigative reporting, this study compares past findings on perceived public importance of investigative reporting and the acceptability of different reporting methods with findings from a national telephone survey of 1,211 respondents conducted in February 1997 by Princeton Survey Research Associates. While past studies only found weak relationships between approval of investigative reporting and respondents' individual-level characteristics, this study hypothesizes that the increased use of these techniques in popular television shows and local evening news has created a highly divided audience which, while paying great attention to reports that use investigative reporting techniques, either strongly approves or disapproves of their use. Findings indicate that the best predictor for whether people approve or disapprove of investigative reporting is their general attitude toward the media's role in society, rather than increased exposure to investigative news stories.
Undercover techniques used by journalists are increasingly coming under public scrutiny. Those targeted by investigative news operations are challenging the methods rather than the accuracy of the reporting - and often winning sympathy from the public. It is a trend that came into sharp focus in January 1997 when a twelve-member jury in North Carolina decided that ABC News should pay $5.5 million in damages to the Food Lion supermarket chain because ABC's reporters posed as employees and used hidden cameras to uncover alleged sales of spoiled meat at some of its stores. The jury found that network producers had trespassed and committed fraud when researching a Primetime Live segment in 1992 that accused the company of selling spoiled meat. Although Food Lion officials disputed the accuracy of the ABC report, they did not sue for libel. Rather, they accused ABC of fraud because it used techniques such as having producers submit fake resumes to get jobs in the meat department of company stores, and then used hidden cameras to film there.
Many journalists argue that hidden cameras and other undercover reporting techniques have long been necessary tools for exposing vital issues of public policy and health. The type of hidden-camera reporting ABC used to investigate Food Lion has become a staple of national and local TV news in recent years as cameras have become increasingly miniaturized. But some media critics say that TV producers have overused them in recent years in a push to create splashy shows and bolster ratings. In fact, the verdict against ABC may reflect a growing public sentiment against news organizations that are perceived as undisciplined and overly aggressive. Several jurors in the Food Lion case said, for example, that although they supported investigative reporting, they took issue with ABC's reporting methods. In particular, they pointed to the use by producers of false resumes to gain jobs in Food Lion stores in South and North Carolina. In addition, the Food Lion case nicely illustrates the public's "schizophrenic" attitude toward the use of investigative reporting techniques such as hidden cameras.1 While many viewers seem to be uncomfortable with the growing amount of surreptitious taping, investigative TV shows have attracted a growing number of loyal viewers.
Despite the great public attention the Food Lion case attracted and the widespread speculations by the media about a possible backlash of this verdict on the future of investigative reporting, the overall impact of this particular case might have been overstated. A representative telephone survey of 1,001 American adults ages 18 and older conducted by the Roper Research Center shortly after the verdict against ABC found that the majority (80 percent) of those who had heard about the case said they thought ABC was not doing anything out of the ordinary in employing the reporting techniques. …