Undercover techniques cost ABC News $5.5 mil

NEW YORK– ABC News was slapped with a $5.5 million jury verdict in a closely watched trial that hinged not on libel but on undercover techniques used by newsmag “PrimeTime Live.”

Food Lion, a Belgian-owned supermarket chain, won the verdict Wednesday for punitive damages in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., after the same jury awarded just $1,402 in actual damages during an earlier phase of the eight-week trial.

ABC News prexy Roone Arledge called that disparity “unsconscionable,” and said in a statement that “if large cor-porations were allowed to stop hard-hitting investigative journalism, the American people would be the losers.”

ABC said it will appeal the verdict, reached after six days of deliberations.

Still a significant award

The award – while less than the $52 million to $1.9 billion Food Lion had reportedly sought – is still significant because it amounts to a wrist-slapping for reporting techniques, not the truth or accuracy of the report itself. As such, it threatens to curb the undercover, hidden-camera techniques used over the years by CBS’ “60 Minutes” and “Dateline NBC,” but especially a hallmark of “PrimeTime Live,” whose anchor Diane Sawyer narrated the Nov. 5, 1992, segment.

“It’s a very odd and worrisome conclusion the jury came to,” said NBC News VP Bill Wheatley. “Certainly if there was a succession of these judgments, it would have a chilling effect” on newsgathering techniques.

But because the newsmag’s findings weren’t directly contested in the court case, ABC News execs said they’ll continue to use hidden-camera investigations, even if others expect them to re-evaluate the practice of journalists assuming false identities in pursuit of a story.

The verdict is the second against ABC in two months, after a Florida jury awarded $10 million to a savings and loan executive who claimed “20/20” libeled him by portraying him as a thief. Last year, the net settled a high-profile suit brought by Philip Morris Cos., offering a rare on-air apology over a report the tobacco giant had “spiked” cigarettes with nicotine.

The Food Lion piece employed two ABC producers, Lynne Dale and Susan Barnett, who concealed their true identities and obtained jobs at the supermarket’s stores in North and South Carolina, where they used hidden cameras in wigs to document what they described as unfair employment practices and unsanitary handling of meat.

Food Lion filed claims of fraud, trespassing and breach of loyalty, saying the producers lied to gain employment, and said the segment cost it $1 billion in lost sales and stock value.

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