ABC vs. Food Lion: Ethical Questions Raised by Sweeps Week

Lately, it seems that it’s impossible to turn on the television without hearing a blaring teaser that announces who will be the next guest-star on a bevy of different sit-coms. Even newsmagazines such as Dateline NBC and PrimeTime Live bring out the big guns during this time of year. Why are the networks are going to such lengths to attract viewers now? One word-“sweeps”.

According to NielsenMedia.com, “sweeps” are different periods of time throughout the year when extensive, viewer demographic information is collected to determine advertising rates.
For PrimeTime Live, airing shocking, investigative pieces during “sweeps” is nothing new. In fact, almost exactly 12 years ago, they aired a particular hidden camera report on the unsanitary meat handling practices of a grocery chain called Food Lion. It not only landed them in the courtroom, but it also raised several ethical questions on how far a journalist should be able to go in the name of informing the public. There were three parties involved, the Food Lion grocery chain, The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and ABC’s PrimeTime Live newsmagazine. All three claimed that they took the measures they did because it was in the best interest of the public. Sadly, when the motivational factors behind each interest is reviewed, it is easy to see that public safety was the last force behind any of their actions.

The case came after PrimeTime Live aired the report that showed stores in the Food Lion chain repackaging old, spoiled meat and fish; mixing old ground meat with new ground meat, and taking a rotting turkey, slapping some barbeque sauce on it and repackaging it for sale in the gourmet food section, according to the court opinion written by circuit Judge M. Blane Michael. Food Lion sued ABC not on the grounds of libel, but rather the way in which the reporters gathered their findings. They sued on the grounds of fraud, breach of loyalty, and trespass because the two reporters who went undercover lied on their applications and resumes given to Food Lion. Food Lion could not prove that the actual information in PrimeTime’s report to be libelous, so they chose this “back-door” route.

In 1997, a federal Jury awarded Food Lion $5.5 million dollars in punitive damages and $1.402 in actual damages. A district court reduced the $5.5 million to $315,000. ABC appealed and the court reversed the verdict stating that Food Lion did not prove its case in relation to the fraud claim. Because the damages awarded were based on this claim, the appellate court threw out all but $2 in damages. The $2 was for the two undercover reporters for trespass and breach of loyalty to the grocery store. Food Lion also claimed in the case, the reason they were bringing ABC to trial was to protect the public from a media who can break the law in the name of getting a story. In the end, anyone who reads the case can surmise that Food Lion’s true interest was saving face so that they could continue to make money, not to protect the average consumer.

According to Russ Baker’s article “Can Reporters Lie About Who They Are? The Food Lion Jury Says No,” published in the March/April 1997 edition of the Columbia Journalism Review (www.cjr.org,) PrimeTime Live caught wind of Food Lion’s unsanitary practices through The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) who were attacking the non-union chain. Also, according to the article “Anti-Consumer Activists” by Thomas J. DiLorenzo on consumeralert.com, the UFCW joined forces with the National Consumer League (NCL), the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Washington D.C. chapter of the NAACP, and several churches in the area to create a “union front organization, ‘Consumers United With Employees’ (CUE).” DiLorenzo claims that the UFCW attacked the Food Lion chain because it offered lower prices than competing unionized grocery stores in the area. CUE was formed to give more credibility to the UFCW’s cause. He states: “The United Food and Commercial Workers Union admits that its objective in “corporate campaigning” is to raise grocery prices by driving lower-priced, non-union chains out of business, or harassing them long enough that they sign a union contract without ever taking a vote of the employees.” Although the UFCW made the claims about the Food Lion stores under the guise of “protecting the public,” the only true interest it had was protecting its pockets. This being the case, ABC’s PrimeTime reporters fell right into the UFCW’s plot, without questioning the motivation behind the UFCW’s claims.

Those at ABC’s PrimeTime Live did everything they could with the Food Lion investigation to negate the first principle of journalism-to report the truth to the public in an honest and fair manner. There were several other ways in which the story could have been collected than the ways in which the PrimeTime journalists, Lynne Dale and Susan Barnett, chose to do so. According to Russ Baker’s article, PrimeTime had collected “sworn affidavits from dozens of former and current Food Lion workers certifying what appeared to be a pattern of pressures by management that led employees to cut costs by any means.” With this information alone, they could have built a sturdy case for the report without having to lie to get the Food Lion jobs. The most obvious problem with PrimeTime’s journalism is the time it took for the story to be investigated to the time it reached the public. PrimeTime investigated the story in February of 1992. With this type of story, immediacy would be of the utmost concern for the journalist who places the public’s interest first. Instead of releasing it in March or April of even July-PrimeTime waited until November 5th 1992 to air the investigation. Why would an astute news organization such as ABC wait to air such an important story? “Sweeps.” According to NielsenMedia.com, “sweeps” ratings occur at several different times throughout the year, but the only months that hit all 210 markets in the United States are February, May, and November. November is especially an important month because of the high volume holiday advertising revenue that is generated. ABC, much like Food Lion, and the UFCW, was looking out for its best interests, not that of the consumer who may have been poisoned by consuming rotting meat.

As a journalist in today’s society, it is seemingly difficult to separate what is propaganda from a special interest group, a company or even well respected, news organization. It is however, not impossible. It just requires a bit of critical thinking, and asking the tough questions. Learning about this case is part of becoming the journalist I want to be. Another part is not being “swept away” by anything reported on TV newsmagazines during the months of February, May and November.

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