Journalistic Tactics on Trial

Five years ago, a report on ABC's "PrimeTime Live" showed hidden-camera footage of children being badly mistreated at two day-care centers in New Orleans.

Suddenly, conditions at day-care centers across the country were a priority, prompting legislation on both the state and federal level and closer scrutiny by parents, government officials, and child advocates. One member of Congress said "the TV program added immensely to our ability to get something done." In that case, clearly, the use of hidden cameras allowed reporters to get a story - and expose a serious problem - they would otherwise have been unlikely to get.

Now, another case has raised questions about the appropriateness, even the legality, of hidden cameras and deception as journalistic tactics. A North Carolina jury awarded the Food Lion supermarket chain $5.5 million in punitive damages to "deter illegal conduct" by news organizations.

This case, also, involved "PrimeTime Live." Two of the show's reporters lied on rsums to get hired by the supermarket, then entered the premises wearing wigs concealing tiny cameras and carrying hidden microphones. They collected evidence that the store was selling rat-gnawed cheese, expired meat, and old fish and ham washed in bleach to kill the smell.

Food Lion didn't deny the reporters' allegations, but it did file suit against ABC, charging the network with fraud, trespassing, and other deception. The jury agreed with those charges. If ABC loses on appeal, news organizations likely will think twice before launching an investigative report that employs similar techniques. That's both good and bad.

Good because hidden cameras and deception have been overused in a push for ratings. They should be reserved for those rare stories where nothing else works, and where the end result can clearly justify such methods. Critics have pointed out that the Food Lion story could have been based on the testimony of former employees, rather than on footage taken sub rosa. The latter, though, lent itself much better to hype and promotion. Many news media experts suggest the ABC decision was the result of a public fed up with aggressive journalistic tactics.

But if the North Carolina ruling keeps journalists from uncovering important stories, the public will suffer. As a rule, journalists must stay within the law, and within the bounds of an ethical code. But those boundaries are not arbitrarily fixed. They may shift depending on the nature of a story.

And it shouldn't be forgotten that Food Lion's practices posed a threat to the public, as well as a violation of law. ABC was right to do the story. Its methods are another matter, posing their own issues of right and wrong.

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