UNDERCOVER : TV versus Newspaper Culture, and the ethics of investigative journalism

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Malaysian journalist, Marc Lourdes, in his post on St. Louis Today (stltoday.com), expressed surprise at the difference between the cultures of television and newspapers when it comes to going undercover.

Lourdes wrote, “I reasoned that since undercover reporting is commonly used by newspapers in my country to get exposes we would otherwise not be able to land, it would be even more fine-tuned in America, which is widely considered the Mecca of journalism. To my surprise, I found that while it is often used by television reporters here, going undercover is considered unethical by most sections of the print media.”

Journalists told Lourdes that “it is unethical for journalists to misrepresent themselves and that it’s also considered an invasion of privacy for journalists to get their stories under false pretenses.” He also learned that many view going undercover as kin to making or staging news instead of just reporting it.

Lourdes asked for comments but no one among the 27 commenters mentioned the most famous US case of a TV investigation gone wrong was the controversial ABC Food Lion story where reporters for PrimeTime Live went undercover in 1992.

Joseph C. Goulden‘s report on the Food Lion case is found on the Accuracy in Media web site (aim.org). He writes, “ABC charged the chain with deliberately selling spoiled food. A jury of 12 Carolinians found that ABC got the story by fraud, and in essence that it had violated the standards by which decent people live and work.” Check out Goulden’s report to learn details. He utilized “thousands of pages of depositions, exhibits, court filings and testimony in Food Lion, Inc. v. Capital Cities/ABC, Inc” and more “than 40 hours of video outtakes filmed by undercover ABC cameramen and producers during its ‘investigation’ of Food Lion.”

Some take the opposite view from Goulden who supported Food Lion’s position that they were victimized. For example, this CNN report claims that the public and investigative reporting itself was the victim, not Food Lion, when the court first ruled in Food Lion’s favor. Also read Jane Kirtley’s 2000 report found on the American Journalism Review web site (AJR.org). She discusses the reversal of the courts original verdict.

Kirtley states, “Food Lion’s roar has been muffled. The international grocery chain was chased out of court, tail between its legs, when most of its infamous lawsuit against Capital Cities/ABC Inc. was dismissed by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.”

Another good resource is Jim Moscou’s 1999 Editor & Publisher article, “Court flips Food Lion in favor of ABC,” posted on allbusiness.com. It includes a must see list of 15 links to stories related to the Food Lion case.

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UNDERCOVER : TV versus Newspaper Culture, and the ethics of investigative journalism

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