Our thoughts: If the practice of advising pimps and prostitutes on covering up their businesses were prevalent at Planned Parenthood clinics, it wouldn’t be a difficult story to get. You might start by asking around or spending a few days outside a clinic before logging on to costumes.com. Add to that the questions surrounding audio on some of the tapes, the clear political motivations behind the sting, and the amazing self-promotion Rose engaged in following the tapes’ release, and it’s hard not to smell a rat here. Or a pimp. Rose’s gotcha videos were just that: titillating pieces of entrapment that show little but how certain people would react in a heavily manufactured situation that may or may not reflect real-world practices.
Video Sees Slaughterhouse Shuttered
What happened: Not technically a journalistic enterprise, the Humane Society of the United States had an undercover investigator working for a year at an abattoir run by Hallmark Meat Packing in Chino, California. The investigator was fitted with a custom-made hidden camera which picked up footage of “downer” cows (cows unable to get up) being “shocked” into standing by electric prods, being dragged by their hooves behind forklift trucks, and even having water forced into their noses by a hose in an effort to get them off their feet. The footage was released in late January 2008, with most reports seizing on the animal cruelty shown and highlighting the fact that Hallmark sold meat to Westland Meat Company, in Chino, which sold onto the Agriculture Department and eventually wound up in school lunches and food programs for the needy.
What came of it: The abattoir was promptly shut down and after further investigation the Department of Agriculture issued the largest beef recall in U.S. history in February 2008—143 million pounds of beef* from the slaughterhouse. Though, as the Times of London reported at the time, officials predicted that most of the estimated 37 million pounds that went to schools would have already been eaten by the time the recall was issued. The Humane Society of the United States conducted a similar investigation at the Bushway Packing slaughterhouse in Vermont in 2009 and the plant was also closed down.
Our thoughts: Given the vested interest to cover up the kinds of practices the Humane Society exposed—historically animal cruelty has been something reported on in this way (see: Sinclair, Upton for starters)—the hidden-camera approach seems necessary here and justified (and the Humane Society does not overreach in describing itself, happy to label their investigations as activism rather than journalism). And the public good was certainly helped by the investigations: practices at the slaughterhouses were not only clearly animal cruelty but potentially endangered the health of unwitting beef-eaters who were consuming the sick and abused cows. The gotcha moment was certainly that—a scary, hard-to-stomach gotcha!—but the motivations weren’t purely partisan point-scoring. There was a genuine public interest issue at stake.
In the Food Lion Pen
What happened: This J-school ethics class staple dates back to 1992 when two ABC Primetime Live producers got jobs at two Food Lion supermarkets in North Carolina and secretly filmed—using cameras hidden in wigs—unsavory practices including Food Lion employees selling rat-nibbled cheese that and bleaching spoiled meat to cover-up foul odors. The investigation aired on Primetime Live in November 1992; host Diane Sawyer had even showed up at a Food Lion with a secret camera for the report. Before the broadcast aired, Food Lion sued ABC, not for libel, but for fraud, trespass and more—the two ABC producers had lied about their previous work experience on their job application forms and, as Food Lion employees, violated company policy.
What came of it: Food Lion claims the broadcast cost the company somewhere between $1.7 billion and $2.5 billion in lost sales and dips in its stock price. After initially winning its case against ABC in a North Carolina Federal District Court—a $5.5 million jury-determined damages was eventually reduced to $315,000—appeals brought the figure down dramatically to $2, a virtual victory for ABC. As the Times reported in 1999: “Only $2 of the original damage award remained untouched by the later rulings, including the jury’s award of $1 to Food Lion because the journalists trespassed on the supermarket chain’s property and $1 because they breached their legal duty of loyalty to their employer.”