KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A jury’s $5.5 million award to Food Lion over an ABC news report may reflect growing public dislike of media intrusiveness, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville Dean of Communications said Friday.
Dr. Dwight Teeter said some reporters have used hidden cameras and other tactics irresponsibly, causing more people to feel that the media is invading their privacy, he said.
The jury’s decision for Food Lion may stem from that dislike, even though the ABC report may have uncovered the truth, Teeter said.
“There’s growing distaste for what is seen as a too-intrusive news media,” Teeter said. “Truth has always been a defense against libel, but this case maximizes concerns over privacy and trespass, not libel.
“The truth may not be enough anymore. As a result, we may get less aggressive reporting in terms of using undercover operatives to ferret out the truth.”
ABC was ordered to pay for its investigative report accusing Food Lion of selling rotten, unsafe food products.
Truth of the charges was not at issue. ABC was punished instead for fraud and trespassing after undercover producers with hidden cameras posed as Food Lion employees.
Teeter said investigative reporting helps protect the public’s interest. Secretive tactics, such as hidden cameras or fake identities, are sometimes the only way to uncover the truth, he said.
“Investigative journalism is a very high calling and it’s got to be done with the best motives, and not just for sensationalism,” Teeter said. “When you get down to basics such as ‘is the government honest?’ or ‘is our food clean?’ there can be a higher good in protecting the public, but I don’t think the media is going to be as willing to do it anymore.”
“A really important function of the press has been struck down because of past misdeeds by the media in other areas over the years.”
Contact: Dr. Dwight Teeter (423-974-3031)