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Editorial: Food Lion decision strikes new blow against freedom of press to investigate

Jan. 24, 1997


Food Lion decision

Food Lion decision strikes new blow against freedom of press to investigate

The issue:

The recent court decision which awarded Food Lion millions in damages over an ABC investigative report.

Our view:

Despite past mistakes by the press, the public is better served if the press can investigate possible problems.

A jury determined Wednesday that the ABC television network must pay the Food Lion grocery chain $5.5 million in damages for an 1992 undercover PrimeTime Live report that exposed a Food Lion store's alleged sale of rotten meat.

Two ABC reporters went undercover as Food Lion employees and used hidden cameras to expose the rotten meat they allegedly found being sold to consumers.

Food Lion disputed the report and took legal action because the reporters were working at the store under false pretenses -- they had used fake resumes to get their jobs at Food Lion. The jury decided this week that the ABC network is guilty of fraud, trespassing and breach of loyalty.

Put simply, the court is punishing the network and making it increasingly difficult for reporters to uncover wrongs and misdeeds in America.

Even though the PrimeTime Live reporters were dishonest in order to get their grocery store jobs, didn't they still uncover a problem that affected the health of viewers everywhere?

Didn't the report help Americans by making them aware of unsafe meat sold in a nationwide grocery chain? Would the meat have been any safer for consumers if the reporters hadn't turned in false resumes to get hired and let people know about it?

The jury's decision delivers another blow to the media Americans already regard with suspicion and disapproval.

A problem is surfacing time and again across the country. Many Americans are starting to lose faith in the media. The Food Lion decision is only the latest of several recent fights America has picked with journalism.

Instead of looking to television and newspapers as sources of truth and allies in the fight against the world's evil, the American people are increasingly suspicious of reporters and quick to criticize any intrusion the media make in the pursuit of news.

But who can blame them? Both public officials and private citizens have been burned too many times, and they've seen lives destroyed by negative publicity and sensationalism.

When a pipe bomb exploded in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games, the media made Richard Jewell into a criminal as soon as FBI agents began questioning him. Only three days after Jewell was hailed as a national hero for alerting police to the suspicious-looking knapsack that held the bomb, he was condemned as a vicious bomber. Jewell was cleared in October, but his life as a private citizen will never be the same -- people will always associate his name with the July bombing, and some will never be convinced he is innocent. The nationwide media sources that jumped on the story and condemned Jewell too hastily are responsible for destroying the man's life.

Earlier this month tabloid newspaper The Globe published several crime-scene photos of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey's December murder in Colorado. The shocking photos prompted stores across the country to take The Globe off the racks, and Americans expressed outrage at the tabloid's distasteful decision to publish the photos.

It is important, however, to distinguish between legitimate news sources and reckless, unethical tabloid newspapers. A free press means there will be both good and bad outlets. Denver and Boulder, Colo., newspaper editors were quick to announce their disapproval of The Globe photos and say they would not have printed the photos in their publications. But to many, newspapers are all the same, and the tabloid's exploitation of a little girl's murder tarnished the image of all the media.

Members of the media have certainly overstepped the bounds of taste and truth countless times. However, the thousands of news stories reported every day that are accurate and fair and helpful are too often overshadowed by the few unfair, unethical mistakes. Every time those mistakes are made, more Americans grow disillusioned and suspicious of the media.

And when people are suspicious of the media, reporters get punished for helping people and uncovering wrongs. That's what happened to ABC this week, and that will continue to be a problem for all journalists stifled by a public that no longer believes in them.

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