I joined the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in April 1979, thirty-three years ago. The preamble to its Code of Ethics says, “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility” and that journalists should “test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent errors.
Someone needs to send a copy of SPJ’s Code of Ethics to the news staff of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).
ABC News and other practitioners of sloppy reporting prompted me to found The National Anxiety Center in 1990 as a clearinghouse for information to debunk “scare campaigns” designed to influence public opinion and policy. Part of that effort was a 2008 series “The Enemies of Meat” in which I examined the scare campaigns related to ranching.
The most troubling trend in recent times has been a steady erosion of journalism’s integrity.
In particular, the latest example has been ABC’s lax ethics that visited devastation on a company with a thirty-year history of safe operation, Beef Products, Inc. The company pioneered the provision of lean, finely textured beef which is blended with fattier hamburger to make it more learn and nutritious. It also protects it against pathogens with a process that won the coveted 2007 “Black Pearl” award from the International Association for Food Protection.
ABC reporter Jim Avila, in hot pursuit of a journalism award, wrote a series of reports claiming that BPI was producing “pink slime” with the network hyping the term by using it 52 times in a two-week period in March. Any reporter investigating BPI would have swiftly found a mountain of evidence exonerating the company from any hint of the allegations made against it.
Avila’s reporting put BPI in jeopardy of closing down entirely, forcing the suspension of business at plants in Texas, Kansas, and Iowa, while the headquarters plant in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, struggles to continue operations. So far 650 employees have lost their jobs with several thousand more jobs at risk at companies that relied on BPI, affecting their families and communities.
The company’s founder, Eldon Roth, wrote in a March The Wall Street Journal ad that “Before last summer, we could not have imagined the personal, professional, financial and spiritual impact of the campaign of lies and deceit that have been waged against our company and the lean beef we produce.”
When challenged on the job losses by Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center, Avila arrogantly tweeted him saying “Let’s be clear. No one job loss if bpi had been upfront with consumers” and dismissed a rebuke from the American Meat Institute’s Janet Riley, saying, “I’m saying we don’t go to lobbyists paid by meat industry to get our experts.”
Not upfront with consumers? The product in its present form has been used for more than a decade with coverage in the Washington Post, the New York Times, a Hollywood movie and more! As for the “experts” in Avila’s reports, he chose a former federal bureaucrat who called the product “pink slime” in a ten-year-old email to fellow employees at the Department of Agriculture.
In an April Bloomberg Business Week article, reporters, Bryan Gruley and Elizabeth Campbell examined the way BPI had been subjected to “sliming”, noting that its finely textured lean beef had been purchased for use by McDonald’s, Wal-Mart Stores, Burger King, Kroger, Taco Bell, and scores of grocers for many years. In short, if you have had a hamburger in the past decade, you have eaten lean finely textured beef and enjoyed it.
Avila repeated the formula in July when ABC aired a story about “super bugs” that it alleged was a strain of bacteria in chicken that could lead to urinary infections in women. ABC did acknowledge that “there is no study showing a definitive link between the presence of e-coli in chicken and infection in women…” but not until viewers had become alarmed by the report.
Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., the vice president of science and technology for the National Chicken Council, noted that, even if there was a “super bug”, it would be easily avoidable through “proper cooking and handling of poultry products, because all bacteria, resistant or not, are killed by proper cooking.” Cooking meat properly is a 10,000 year-old practice, but when someone forgets to do it, Avila and ABC thinks it is news.
The kind of reporting that has become the hallmark of ABC News is an insult to everyone. In the case of BPI, it constitutes a bogus attack on the meat industry and is destructive of the livelihood of everyone fortunate to bring home a paycheck in those industries.
What happened to BPI can happen any time a reporter like Avila dispenses with the most fundamental standards of journalism.
The ABC News product increasingly ceases to be journalism. It is sensationalism. It is reprehensible. It’s time to let ABC News feel the sting of public disapproval.