Is it time to revisit undercover journalism?

Seth Stern

Director of Advocacy

Food Lion - Clarksville, VA” by Virginia Retail is licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED.

If you’ve gone to journalism school in the last quarter century you’ve likely heard of the Food Lion case. A federal appellate court found that journalists who got jobs at Food Lion grocery stores to investigate food safety violations breached a duty of loyalty by misleading Food Lion and trespassed by entering employee areas they accessed under false pretenses.

Often presented to young journalists as a cautionary tale, the landmark case significantly slowed the once relatively common practice of “undercover” journalism. Lawyers who thought that the subjects of news reports could not recover damages in court as long as the facts reported were true, now saw a new risk: punitive damages based on newsgathering methods, as opposed to the content of the reporting.

As a result, hidden-camera and other surreptitious investigations were largely abandoned by many mainstream outlets and are now often associated with fringe (and often disreputable) platforms.

Appellate court says never mind

But this year, the Fourth Circuit — the same appellate court that decided Food Lion — all but overruled itself. The change of mind came in a case in which the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, and others challenged a North Carolina “ag-gag” law against undercover investigations at agricultural facilities.

The appellate court agreed that the law could not be weaponized against constitutionally protected newsgathering. Freedom of the Press Foundation joined a brief by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press supporting PETA’s position.

The government argued that the ag-gag law was passed to codify the Fourth Circuit’s decision in the Food Lion case. But the appellate court said that’s irrelevant because, in hindsight, Food Lion was wrong. As the North Carolina Supreme Court had already recognized, the journalists acting as food-counter clerks did not breach a duty of loyalty to the grocery chain and, therefore, could not have trespassed, because Food Lion let them in.

And this month, the Supreme Court declined to review the case. That leaves Food Lion seriously weakened if not dead altogether.

Food Lion’s significance was always overstated. While a jury verdict awarding Food Lion over $5.5 million in damages made headlines, the judge cut the damages to $315,000 and then the appellate court cut the total to a whopping $2.

One of the reasons lawmakers in North Carolina wanted to codify the case was so future Food Lions could recover real money. If Food Lion began as a $2 case, few would have given it much thought. But by the time the appellate court cut the damages (and by the time the North Carolina Supreme Court said that the Fourth Circuit got it wrong), the harm was already done by the publicity around the initial verdict.

There’s no telling how many stories the public missed out on as a result of the changes to journalism — both legal and cultural — brought about by Food Lion. We’re a long way from the days when a news outlet might go as far as to open a fake tavern so they could report firsthand on city officials’ shakedown attempts.

Don’t rush to put your hidden cameras back on

To be clear, we’re not suggesting that journalists everywhere start submitting false job applications and wearing hidden cameras. Please, talk to a lawyer before you do anything like that.

The PETA case clarified that the ABC journalists didn’t owe Food Lion a duty of loyalty when working as food-counter clerks, but the court might have viewed the issue differently if, for example, they’d falsely applied for a more senior role. There have been other cases decided and laws passed since Food Lion that may affect journalists’ rights in different jurisdictions. State laws on recording conversations without consent can also vary widely.

Unfortunately, cases involving unsympathetic outlets, which have taken the lead on undercover investigations since Food Lion, tend to yield bad outcomes. Last year, a federal jury in Washington, D.C. found Project Veritas liable after its operatives used fake names and backstories to obtain internships with Democratic consulting firms.

And the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held last year that the First Amendment did not protect anti-abortion activists who gained access to Planned Parenthood personnel by posing as exhibitors from a fake company. The Supreme Court also declined to review that decision, which relied on a questionable attempt to distinguish damages allegedly caused by the activists’ deceptive conduct itself from those caused by their subsequent publications.

And there may be ethical issues with surreptitious newsgathering even when it’s legal. The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics advises journalists to “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public (emphasis added).”

But do consider if there’s a place for stealth journalism

But we do think it’s worth noting that journalists have been limiting their reporting techniques for decades based, at least in part, on an incorrect ruling that has essentially been rescinded.

And the PETA case isn’t the only recent crack in the supposed black-and-white rule that journalists can be punished under “generally applicable” laws. The Department of Justice recently admitted that protest dispersal orders need to accommodate journalists so they can report on the aftermath of a dispersal. The NYPD similarly agreed in a settlement to stop dispersing journalists covering protests.

Perhaps this is indicative of a broader acceptance that, especially with petty offenses like trespass, the public good of enforcing generally applicable laws needs to be weighed against the public harm of silencing journalists.

These days, everyone from political campaigns to sports leagues to government agencies is sealing off people and spaces to which the press used to have access, and the press’s response has often been limited to complaining in editorials. Perhaps it’s time for the press to — carefully and in close consultation with legal counsel — think creatively about ways to get in through the back door when newsmakers won’t let them in the front.

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