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.”
Our thoughts: ABC claimed it contacted more than sixty on-the-record sources to discuss Food Lion’s practices; it also had aired several interviews with Food Lion employees as part of its report. Presumably then, they had a story without the hidden-camera footage. And it’s true that its employees were dishonest when they filled out their forms. So there is ethical grayness here. Clearly, ABC wanted the footage because it was sensational—Primetime Live had made hidden camera investigations their bread and butter. But unlike some of the other cases, this instance, like the slaughterhouse exposé, was almost entirely unmanufactured. The producers were simply observing Food Lion’s practices, none of which were baited by the journalists there undercover. That was until the footage made it to the editing suite—a CJR report from July/August 1993 noted that in TV’s “insistence on brevity,” sometimes “context gets left on the cutting room floor.” Russ W. Baker tells readers that one segment which showed a worker heard saying she didn’t know how to clean the meat saw; Primetime Live had edited out the part where she said it wasn’t her job to clean it. Still, debatable whether the segment would have had nearly the impact that it had—a positive impact in that it shed a great deal of light on dangerous practices—had the footage not been there to air. And Baker at the time concluded that Primetime Live’s evidence was mostly sound.
In the article, Baker makes a more general point which we might keep in mind in considering all of these examples. (At least those involving hidden camera lurking in the folds of a shirt or the curls of a wig.)
It is hard not to wonder whether the tight focus of the hidden camera leads journalists into a typical trap—zeroing in on a villain when the problem is systemic. PrimeTime clearly explained that Food Lion’s harsh labor policies encouraged employees to cut corners. But while PrimeTime was focusing on Food Lion, Atlanta’s WAGA-TV was in the midst of a six-week hidden camera investigation that documented alleged violations in every one of twenty metro Atlanta supermarkets it surveyed.
*Note: this originally read just “143 pounds of beef.” As commenter Thimbles pointed out, it should actually be 143 million.