We simply shouldn’t be here.
On Thursday, Beef Products, Inc. filed a $1.2 billion lawsuit against ABC News and others for allegedly engaging in a “vicious” and sustained campaign of misinformation that caused demand for the company’s Lean, Finely Textured Beef product to dry up, eventually resulting in the loss of 700 jobs in three states. BPI claims the network made 200 false, misleading or defamatory statements over a roughly 30-day period despite being provided with information that clearly demonstrate at least parts – if not all – of its original reporting was deeply flawed.
As a media organization, our support of the First Amendment is deeply rooted. We strongly believe news organizations like ABC News and others should have the freedom to engage in investigative reporting, even if that reporting may cause harm to a major business or others. Countless scandals have been uncovered and tragedies averted thanks to dogged journalists of all stripes. We must always be vigilant to protect the freedom of our press in this country. This freedom helps separate us from both our allies and our enemies elsewhere in the world.
However, like the medical profession, journalism has something akin to Hippocratic Oath. Ethical, professional journalists believe in three guiding principles, as described eloquently by media ethicist Bob Steele: 1. Seek truth and report it as fully as possible; 2. act independently; 3. minimize harm. Often, at least two of these guiding principles come into conflict when reporting on the news. At that point, it is up to the new organization to make the best call it can with the information it has. The best, most ethical and most credible news organizations tend to err on the side of minimizing harm.
To that end, we can’t know what was in the hearts and minds of the ABC News personnel who made the decision to publish the organization’s initial news story. We know significant portions of that story were inaccurate or misleading. However, we will give them, as we hope our customers give us, the benefit of the doubt. They may have truly believed they were uncovering something of significant public concern. They may have thought they were doing good.
Yet, it is clear to us that ABC News, which we should clarify is run separately from your local ABC affiliate, should have understood in the immediate aftermath that their reporting was deeply flawed. They were clearly not acting to minimize harm. In fact, they were not only inflicting harm on a major corporation, they were inflicting harm on hundreds of the company’s workers and their families. Given the clear evidence, provided to them in great depth by BPI and others, ABC News should have understood they needed to correct their mistakes. They did not. They doubled down.
When BPI held a press conference to try to refute the information being spread, in large part due to the network's flawed journalism, the news organization sent the reporter (Jim Avila) who produced the original segment to cover the event. But Jim didn’t sit quietly with the rest of the media, he became antagonistic and disrespectful. There was simply no excuse for ABC News’ decision to send this reporter to our region, and no excuse for his behavior once he got here. The Society of Professional Journalists, the standard bearer of the industry, puts it succinctly: “Pursuit of news is not a license for arrogance.”
Ultimately, we believe, that is why we are here. Arrogance. Enormous news organizations like ABC News too often show blatant disregard for the average reader or viewer. They can easily lose sight of journalism’s guiding principles and the impact their decisions can have on real people. More importantly, as in this case, they are too often unwilling or unable to admit when they are wrong.
Media organizations across the country, including this one, have found themselves in ABC News’ shoes. An initial report or story, thought to be valid, fair and accurate at the time of publication, is proven to be flawed or in need of additional reporting. The ethical, credible organization will then admit its mistakes, correct the record and strive do better moving forward. If ABC News had simply swallowed its pride and done the right thing, it’s unlikely we’d be here today.
BPI will likely have a difficult time proving their case in court. Our laws are built in such a way that the burden of proof is high in cases of defamation or libel. We support setting that bar high. But ABC News shouldn’t cavalierly dismiss this complaint. Its arrogance got them into this, but it most certainly won’t get them out.