The “Grey Area” among Journalists’ Investigations


A local Food Lion grocery store. Photo taken by Dan Berthiaume.

25 years ago, journalists from ABC News were sent to go undercover with hidden cameras in Food Lion. Their mission was to reveal the fact that the grocery stores are selling rat-gnawed cheese, and spoiled meat and chicken being washed with bleach, repackaged and given a new sell-by date.

After the report was aired on Primetime Live in November 1992, the Food Lion asserted that their reputation was ruined by this report and has lost almost 2 billion dollars not only in sales but also their stock value. The company sued the ABC News for fraud and trespassing, which the ABC didn’t deny using deceptive methods to gather news but they refused to admit committing fraud and trespassing. The ABC finally lost they law suit and was fined several million dollars, however, they end up with paying nothing to Food Lion.

In this case, the main question remains, is it ethical for the news organization like ABC to have undercover journalist to reveal the situation?  And should the news organization continuing sending journalist to go undercover (with or without hidden cameras) even if it is technically illegal (some states)? Media ethics professor, Fred Brown (who also wrote the book “Journalism Ethics A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media“, and in his book he also discussed the case about ABC versus Food Lion), at University of Denver gave his opinions about the case.

“Going undercover is something that should be used only as the last resort, if there is no other way to get the story,” said Prof. Brown. “Because it involves deception, and one of the major principles of the journalism today in particular is transparency. And if you could not be totally open about your own identity and what you’re up, that is not being as transparent as you should be.” As in this case, the ABC News was not being honest to the Food Lion; however, on the other hand they are being transparent to the public and then Prof. Brown answered about this question.

“Yes, as journalists, your primary obligation is to the public not the companies; but you also need to show respect to your sources too, unless they give your reasons to not to respect them,” explained by Prof. Brown. “In this case, I guess the ABC, they have heard about these disgusting practices at Food Lion and what’s going on. They could choose to do a open investigation instead of going undercover.” So, if there are other methods that could be used to solve this case, then why the ABC insisted on sending those journalists to go undercover with hidden cameras?

“In television, you it is more about a show, it is more engaging or it gets people involved to show them rather than just tell them,” Prof. Brown added that. “I still have problem with people with hidden cameras, but sometimes their behavior is justified. This is on the fringe, sometimes, you have to do the unethical things in order to get a good result. It sounds contributory but it is true. Here, in this case, the idea minimizing harm applied to the audiences rather to the source.”

“I believe the news organization should continue sending people to go undercover in companies that have ‘dirty’ practices,” claimed by Robert Liu, a junior at Middlebury College who’s studying Political Science and Economy. “These journalists put their life at risks to discover the secrets that companies are trying to hide from the public. They should be encouraged and protected, and the law should also be on their side if they are doing it for the public safety.”

Using hidden cameras or sending undercover journalist to conduct investigation are always being categorized as the “grey area” of journalism. There are certain people they would agree such behaviors and certain people highly against it in the US. However, if we look at what happened in China it would be a totally different story.

In China, there is this “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Consumer Rights and Interests”, thus to protect the consumers’ rights the government have a system “315”, which people can contact the government when their right is violated. And on March 15th every year, the government will reveal lots of cooperation on TV about their bad behaviors. The main difference compared to the US would be, most of the mainstream media or news organization in China is controlled by the government (government owned), thus the journalists are going undercover representing the authority (on another words which is the government authorized them to invest). And the situation in the US which the news organizations are undercover on their own behalf – unauthorized by the government.

In 2014, journalists went undercover in the McDonald restaurant in China, and discovered that the company is using expired meat, transgenic chicken with 6 wings and repeat using the same cooking oil to fry their meat. One video showed a conversation between the journalist (sent by the CCTV – China Central Television) and the manager of a McDonald restaurant in Beijing when the journalist drop the chicken wings on the floor. J:”I am sorry I dropped it. I’ll go get a new one.” M: “What are you doing you dumb kid, pick it up and throw it in to the pot. It is fine, the consumer they don’t know you’ve dropped it.” And when the news is aired, we only see the McDonalds company apologize to the public, we didn’t see them suing the news company for fraud or trespass because they know they don’t stand a chance versus the government.

When looking at the Food Lion case, they sued the ABC News, who actually lost their case even if they are on the moral highland and have the support of the public (because they are trying to reveal something that contains food safety issues). But in China, the public and also the law support the journalists to do such things. The question would be, should the US government support investigation like what ABC did or the Chinese government did?

“I think it will be interesting if the government support investigations conducted by the government,” said Chloe Lu, a senior at University of Denver who is studying International Studies. “The government system of two countries are totally different, I mean the government cannot interference too much with the News organization. Not just the government, the public won’t accept such behavior. They would be angry about it if the government decide to conduct investigations about companies even they are trying to protect the public. The public have already really pissed about the tapping phones and monitoring the internet.”





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