Food Lion Case Raises Questions About Media Ethics

IS IT ETHICAL for journalists to hide their identity to provide the public a story? Newspaper reporters rarely go undercover, but more TV journalists seem to be taking advantage of cameras that are small enough to hide in a cap. -----------------------------------------------------------------

NEW YORK - The "lipstick camera" may have changed the face of investigative journalism, at least on television.

Today's mini video cameras, some the size of a lipstick canister, can be hidden in a reporter's baseball cap or a producer's wig, and they give TV news an easy way to sneak the viewer behind the scenes. Child pornography via the Internet, lax airport security and unclean fast-food joints have all been subjected to the probing of undercover journalists armed with the tiny devices.

But this micro-technology also has revived an old ethical question: When is a story so important that a journalist must deceive to tell the truth?

For ABC News, the question has been especially crucial. It has been awaiting a North Carolina jury's decision on how much it should pay Food Lion for a 1992 story about the grocery-store chain.

Today, that federal jury decided Capital Cities/ABC and two ABC employees owe Food Lion more than $5.5 million in punitive damages.

Last month, the jury decided that ABC had trespassed and committed fraud during a "PrimeTime Live" segment that used undercover reporters and hidden cameras to document charges that

some stores sold tainted meat and overripe fish.

Food Lion was awarded $1,402 in compensatory damages.

Food Lion, which denies any unclean or unsafe food practices, did not challenge the truth of ABC's report in court by suing for libel - a difficult charge to prove in most cases. Instead, the company, which has 1,100 stores in 14 states, argued successfully that it was defrauded by ABC reporters who misled Food Lion's personnel office in order to gain access to company premises. The grocery-store chain lost millions of dollars in sales and stock value.

"They were using Food Lion as a sound stage," said Donna Walters, a spokesman for the grocery company.

The first verdict already had raised an outcry from some news advocates who worried it would erode constitutional protections for the media. But others hope that the Food Lion case will force journalists to re-examine whether they should misrepresent themselves or even lie to get a higher truth.

`The question of truth'

On one end of the spectrum is Clifford Christians, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois who believes undercover journalism should be avoided except in extreme cases.

"Journalism is centered on the question of truth," said Christians, who is an expert on media ethics. "Just as justice is to politics and healing is to medicine, so is truth the essence of good journalism and deception is the opposite of it."

On the other side is Mitchell Stephens, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, who suggests that any simple rule banning undercover work would not serve the public or the media very well.

"There are a lot of things that would never have been uncovered if reporters didn't go undercover," Stephens said.

In general, most newspapers don't allow undercover work at all. Some allow it in extreme cases, such as the Miami Herald's investigation of housing discrimination several years ago. The paper got black and white reporters to apply for rentals in order to determine whether race was a factor in approval for apartments. Journalists gave their real names and their corporation (in this case Knight-Ridder), but they did not say they were working on a story for the Herald.

A rarity for newspapers

But even such cases are rare for newspapers, especially since the late 1970s, when the Chicago Sun-Times experimented with several undercover stories and drew criticism from many of the United States' top editors and media experts as a result.

In one case, the newspaper, CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" and Chicago's Better Government Association set up a bar that they called the Mirage. Once opened, the camera and undercover journalists watched as various city officials demanded bribes for their services (including looking the other way about code violations).

Similarly, in 1978, the newspaper used undercover techniques to determine whether several clinics in downtown Chicago were performing costly abortions on women who were not pregnant.

Female journalists went to the clinic and took urine samples from men for their pregnancy tests. The clinic reported back that some samples tested positive for pregnancy.

Still, neither the Mirage nor abortion stories won the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize. This omission was viewed at the time as a highly public slap at the Sun-Times and clear notice to other newspaper journalists that such methods were not acceptable. But if the print media have shied away from undercover work in recent years, television has moved in the opposite direction.

TV goes opposite way

"In years past, it was much more difficult to go undercover with a video camera, but now these cameras can fit in the end of a ballpoint pen," said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Christians, using a system outlined by Sissela Bok in her book "Lying," said that before any use of subterfuge, a journalist should ask three questions:

-- Have you tried everything else?

-- Can you come up with some moral principle, some ethical issue that is so important it justifies deception?

-- Can you justify it to the person or people like the one you will deceive so that eventually they can say, "I don't like it, but I see why you did it?"

"I fear that the technology and the function of getting something done visually have overrun the moral imperative here," Christians said.