By: David Noack
Hundreds of journalism professors around the U.S. have received a slick ‘curriculum package.’
Food Lion says it’s for classroom study and discussion purposes. Others call it propaganda.
FOOD LION INC., the supermarket chain that won a $5.5 million award against ABC News in 1996, is quietly campaigning to get its version of that case taught in journalism schools across the country.
The Salisbury, N.C., grocery store company has sent slick, professionally produced “curriculum packages” to more than 200 journalism professors.
Containing documents such as “Food Lion vs. ABC: Fakes, Lies and Videotape,” the package is accompanied by a cover letter from Chris Ahearn, director of Food Lion’s communications and public affairs office, suggesting that each journalism professor use the items “in your courses.”
“The issues raised in this litigation ? issues of privacy, employee loyalty, libel, media rights and responsibilities, media ethics and more ? are fundamental to the practice of journalism at the end of the 20th century. They can only be resolved through reasoned and informed debate,” says the cover letter.
‘Highly Spun PR’
Manley Witten, a journalism professor at California State University, Northridge, characterized the Food Lion curriculum materials as “highly spun public relations.”
Jay Brodell, a journalism professor at Metropolitan State College in Denver, said, “The whole thing reeks of Food Lion’s desire to make themselves a poster child as a victim of the mass media.”
ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said network executives had not seen the Food Lion materials and, thus, could not comment on them.
Ahearn declined to provide a copy of the package to E&P because, she explained, “We are not sending it out to the media. We are not trying to get more stories or present a different slant on history.” E&P later obtained a copy of the Food Lion curriculum package from a university journalism professor.
Among a variety of ethical issues, the materials recap the case involving two ABC producers who applied for and received jobs at Food Lion as part of an undercover investigation of the company.
Aired on ABC’s newsmagazine PrimeTime Live in 1992, the results of that hidden-cameras project reported that Food Lion sold meat after its expiration date, sold spoiled deli products and dumped smelly fish in bleach to mask the odor.
Food Lion subsequently sued ABC for fraud, trespassing and lack of employee loyalty and won the case in December 1996. The company did not sue for libel, which would have contested the report’s accuracy and would have been much harder to prove. The jury award of $5.5 million in punitive damages has been reduced to $315,000, which is being appealed. Compensatory damages amounted to $1,402.
The main part of the curriculum package includes a study by Professor Jean Folkerts, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University; a videotape that points out inconsistencies in the broadcast; a document called “Food Lion vs. ABC: Fakes, Lies and Videotape,” by Food Lion; the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a selection of news articles.
Folkerts, who was paid by Food Lion, provides a brief history of the controversy and suggests questions intended to spark classroom discussions. She said the information package is intended as a tool in journalism classes, where students can discuss what is news, how news is gathered and how news is presented. “It’s designed as a package to use in class, to come to your own conclusions,” she explained.
Folkerts said she was approached about doing the study by a consultant for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP, the law firm that represented Food Lion. “Food Lion never even asked to change anything except one phrase ? I don’t remember it exactly ? a legal term that wasn’t quite accurate. It was very hands-off,” said Folkerts.
Ahearn said Folkerts had access to all the material that Food Lion obtained, including 45-hours of videotape.
“We know it’s going to be discussed with or without our input,” said Ahearn. “But we wanted to make certain that professors had access to a broad range of information as they were deciding what to present to their students.”
?(Video and print materials sent by Food Lion to journalism professors around the country as part of a package proclaiming the grocery story vanquished ABC TV network in a landmark lawsuit hinging on
the claim of fraud instead of libel) [Caption]
?( E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher August 29, 1998) [Caption]