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The 1999 case Food Lion v. ABC focuses on the undercover reporting aspect of privacy. Undercover reporting can be a powerful tool, but it should be used with caution and only as a last resort tactic. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, “Overreliance on sting operations and subterfuge can weaken the public’s trust in the media and compromise journalists’ claim to be truth-tellers.” Only after all other means to get the information are exhausted should a journalist move to undercover tactics.
The case: Reporters from ABC’s Primetime Live submitted false resumes so that they could be hired in Food Lion’s meat department. They wanted to assess how Food Lion handles their meat. They found a lot of unsanitary practices and used hidden cameras to captures some things. It was an act of deception. So the ethics are bad, but what they uncovered was beneficial to the public.
Problems: The journalists could have found other means to get what they wanted, and they should have used those other means first. Journalists should not use deception/undercover reporting unless that is the only way to get the information and if all other ways have been exhausted.
Judge’s opinion from Food Lion v. ABC (1995)
Opinion from U.S. Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit (1999)
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