In the 1992 case Food Lion v. Capital Cities/ABC Inc., the grocery giant sued the news agency not for defamation (the claims about unsanitary practices in the meat department were accurate), but for fraud, breach of the duty of loyalty, trespass and unfair trade practices. The grocer made the accusation because two ABC reporters, Lynne Litt and Susan Barnett, applied for and received jobs at the grocery store under false identities and covertly taped meat preparation practices of other employees.
A Greensboro, N.C. jury decided that Food Lion deserved a $5.5 million award for the case. After ABC appealed, however, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said the reporters were only guilty of “breach of duty of loyalty” and “trespass” and decreased the damages to $2, a nominal sum.
The judgment by the appeals court was the correct one. For reporters, honesty and accuracy are two of the most important assets they possess. However, in certain extremely rare circumstances there is value for a reporter to misrepresent himself or herself in order to uncover something that is hidden and is of major public importance.
In general, this is a dangerous tactic since a reporter risks losing credibility and, it should be noted, that reporters are not police officers trained or protected while conducting undercover investigations. However, when public health is at risk, as it was in the Food Lion case, it was worth gaining access to the food preparation facilities by dishonest means to expose the danger.
The lower court stated and the higher court affirmed that it was Food Lion, not the reporters who is ultimately to blame: “the publication damages claimed by Food Lion ‘were the direct result of diminished consumer confidence in the store’ and that ‘it was [Food Lion’s] food handling practices themselves — not the method by which they were recorded or published — which caused the loss of consumer confidence.’”
Salem Solomon is a journalist, graduate student and a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She is currently based in Washington D.C., working on her professional practicum at Voice of America’s Horn of Africa Service. Twitter: @salem_solomon