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From AJR,   October 1998  issue

Taking the Fight to the Classroom   


By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."     

Food Lion first received vindication over ABC with its victory in the courtroom. Now the grocery chain is taking its dispute with the network into new territory: the classroom. The controversial move has generated debate among journalism educators and elicited concern, if not outrage, at ABC News.

In July, Food Lion packaged up materials on the much-talked-about legal battle and sent the bundles to journalism professors across the country. The initiative, which involved the assistance of a prominent journalism professor, has prompted a decision by ABC News President David Westin to send a response to "every journalism school we can find."

About 200 members of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication received the package of teaching aids concerning Food Lion's problems with a 1992 report on ABC's "PrimeTime Live." The segment, which charged that Food Lion engaged in unsanitary food handling and illegal labor practices, included hidden-camera video shot by two ABC producers who obtained jobs at Food Lion stores using falsified résumés. Food Lion sued, alleging that ABC News personnel had engaged in fraud, trespassing and breach of loyalty.

A jury decided in Food Lion's favor, awarding it $1,402 in compensatory damages and $5.5 million in punitive damages, which the trial judge reduced to $315,000. Both sides have filed appeals, and a decision is pending.

The grocery chain's educational kit includes a Food Lion-produced report, "Fakes, Lies and Videotape," and a 15-minute video prepared by a public relations firm, which uses unaired ABC footage to support the company's contention that ABC's report was untrue.

The materials also include "A Case Study in Journalism Ethics," written by Jean Folkerts, director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs and editor of AEJMC's publication, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. A Food Lion consultant suggested that the company hire Folkerts to produce the study, which presents legal and ethical issues surrounding the Food Lion case; a history of the relationships among business, labor and journalism; and questions for class discussion.

Folkerts' involvement has raised questions because Food Lion paid her to produce the study. But Chris Ahearn, Food Lion's director of communications and public affairs, maintains that the company "has not edited the content of her report in any way."

Food Lion created the package, Ahearn says, to promote "reasoned and informed debate" in journalism courses about media and labor issues.

Folkerts hopes the case study leads students to think about questions such as, "Why is somebody giving me this tip? Do they have the public interest at heart?" She based her work primarily on material provided by the grocery chain's law firm, and on a review of some of the unaired hidden-camera footage that ABC turned over to Food Lion.

Sandy Davidson, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, doesn't have a problem with using the materials. She says Folkerts' case study discusses "important things for journalism students to consider."

She acknowledges, "Any time that money has changed hands, I'm going to be looking for bias," and she would use other teaching materials on the subject as well. But she doesn't think that "just because somebody was paid to do something, it can't be valid."

Other educators say although the case study has some good material, it has serious flaws.

Food Lion's viewpoint "is given priority throughout," while ABC's arguments and discussion of "fundamentals of journalism, journalism philosophy, journalism heritage, journalism principles are getting very short shrift," says University of South Florida Professor Jay Black, co-editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics and co-author of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics handbook.

Keith Woods, an associate in ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, worries that Folkerts' payment for the case study--packaged with what he calls Food Lion's "unabashedly slanted" material--can create credibility problems for journalism educators and journalism itself.

When the public becomes "legitimately skeptical and perhaps even critical" of such practices, "they begin shooting at journalism education. They begin shooting at journalists," Woods says.

Folkerts disagrees. She says some journalists and educators shy away from self-criticism. "Then when somebody is critical, the person sort of gets accused of undermining journalism or not being loyal to its principles, and I think that's a huge mistake."

The case study examines journalistic values and practices by looking at "how the [Food Lion story] idea came about, how the story was pursued, the physical evidence in terms of what tapes ABC had to edit from," Folkerts says.

Betty Medsger, a former reporter and journalism department head who has conducted a national journalism education study, raises another concern: that Folkerts' work gives Food Lion's curriculum package a legitimacy it would not have if it included only the company's public relations materials.

Folkerts' involvement "absolutely" influenced professor Ruth Walden's decision to use some of the materials in her ethics class. "Her name's on it and I trust her," says Walden, who teaches at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication and is an acquaintance of Folkerts.

Folkerts is "disappointed" that her case study and Food Lion's brochure look so similar, but says "any intelligent educator can certainly separate the two."

For his part, ABC's Westin says he is "shocked" that Food Lion material is being used in college journalism courses.

"We haven't had any journalism professor, any journalism school, call us up and ask us for our side of the story, or whether this is right or not," he says.

Westin, who was ABC's general counsel when the "PrimeTime Live" report aired, says the network will produce a response that addresses the "inaccuracies and misleading things" in the Food Lion package and will send it to journalism educators nationwide.

Food Lion spokeswoman Ahearn says the company's curriculum package "does not make misrepresentations," while Folkerts maintains her work is accurate.

But one thing is certain: Westin won't ask a journalism educator for help with ABC's response. "I do not intend to go out and pay a journalism professor to write up our story," Westin says. The practice, he says, is "just inappropriate."