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Experts: Public is loser in Food Lion verdict

Food Lion

Investigative journalism at stake

January 23, 1997
Web posted at: 1:12 p.m. EST (1812 GMT)

RALEIGH, North Carolina (CNN) -- A jury's decision to award Food Lion $5.5 million in damages over an ABC News report will have a chilling effect on undercover reporting and discourage the media from trying to serve the public, First Amendment experts say.

"It's one of the very few cases where a news organization has been found liable for damages based not on the story but on the way they got the story," said Jane Kirkley, the executive director of the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press.

ABC on Wednesday was ordered to pay punitive damages for a 1992 "PrimeTime Live" segment that accused the supermarket chain of selling rat-gnawed cheese, expired meat, and old fish and ham that had been washed in bleach to kill its smell.


To get the story, ABC sent two producers, who did not disclose their true identities or their intentions, undercover with cameras in their wigs. Each worked several days in Food Lion stores in North Carolina and South Carolina.

While Food Lion disputed the report's claims, it was ABC's newsgathering methods that were at issue in the federal trial. The jury earlier found the network committed fraud, trespassing and breach of loyalty.

Decision could hurt smaller media organizations

Kirkley, who provides legal advice to journalists about investigative techniques, said the decision would hold a far-reaching impact for smaller news organizations "that can't afford the risk of dealing with a lawsuit like this even if they ultimately win." icon (150K/13 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

She added that the jury's decision highlights an "ambiguity" among the public and its view of journalists. "(Jurors) seemed to agree that this was an important story to tell, but they said, 'Of course, ABC should not cross the line.' What line?" icon (163K/13 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Washington-based First Amendment lawyer Bruce Sanford said the award would force broadcasters and print journalists to think twice before doing investigative pieces.

"It's punishing the messenger plain and simple," Sanford said.

ABC plans to appeal the decision. It stood by its report Wednesday. "If large organizations were allowed to stop hard-hitting investigative journalism, the American people would be the losers," ABC News President Roone Arledge said.

Jurors: 'Guidelines' must be followed

Food Lion said it lost more than $1 billion in sales and stock value because of the report but never filed a libel lawsuit because the statute of limitations had run out.

Richard Wyatt, a Food Lion lawyer, said the truth of the broadcast would be addressed in a separate lawsuit filed against the supermarket chain by its own shareholders.


Jurors said ABC didn't have to lie to get its information.

"The media has a right to bring the news, but they have to have guidelines too," said Gregory Mack, the jury foreman. "When you look at a football game, you see boundaries all around. You go out of bounds, you go out of bounds."

Juror Tony Kinton agreed, saying reporters will have to find better ways of "collecting the news without misrepresenting themselves." He added that the award to Food Lion was just a "slap on the wrist." icon (271K/15 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Last month, a federal jury in Miami awarded a savings and loan executive $10 million, deciding that ABC's "20/20" libeled him by falsely portraying him as a thief.


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