Who Needs Journalistic Integrity? It’s Award Season!

Lisa De Pasquale

8/28/2012 12:15:00 PM - Lisa De Pasquale
A few weeks ago I wrote about how sensationalist reporting has led to ethical questions about the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s reporting on BPA. The lead reporter in the series has, predictably, moved on to work at an environmental group, but still brags that she was nominated for a Pulitzer. With award season just around the corner, you can expect TV and print journalists to start dusting off their reels and clip files. Facts be damned, this is for a major award!

One of the best case studies for award-fishing and grandstanding is Jim Avila of ABC News for his so-called investigation of the beef industry and use of lean, fine textured beef.

The first step in award-fishing is to pick a subject. If you want to increase your chances, go with a subject that has already won an award. In ABC News’ case, they apparently looked to Michael Moss of the New York Times for ideas. In 2009, Moss won a Pulitzer for his reporting on beef processing. In the introduction to the ABC News segment, Diane Sawyer boasts that “Jim Avila set out to get answers” about beef processing. No mention that the “answers” were the same ones reached by Moss in the New York Times, in the movie “Food, Inc.” and on the ABC program, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” I can’t wait for Avila’s investigation of what happened at Watergate!

Once you’ve picked a subject that’s already garnered an award, you have to add to it. Lucky for Avila, he has the power of TV b-roll to ramp up his investigation. ABC also added the “whistleblower” dimension. Even though the former USDA bureaucrat was cited in the New York Times story for calling lean, fine textured beef “pink slime” in an inter-office memo, ABC News was the first to highlight him as a whistleblower. Generally, the criterion for being labeled a whistleblower is to show some kind of corruption or wrong doing by the company. In this case, the bureaucrat had used a term that was also used nearly a decade earlier. Yes, it wasn’t commonly used, but not because the USDA or beef producers were trying to hide something. The truth is the term “pink slime” isn’t accurate in describing what ABC News and others claim to be investigating. ABC News also didn’t acknowledge that the memo is a decade old because it would out their “investigation” as old news.

In the first ABC News segment, Avila made numerous errors in describing the product known as lean, fine textured beef. Avila said it was made from “beef trimmings.” In fact, it’s meat from the trimmings, not the trimmings themselves. Avila also said it was “once used only in dog food.” Also, wrong. Trimmings were used for animal food until an economically-feasible way of extracting the meat for humans was invented. Avila also reported on the process “to make them safe to eat.” In order to create a more scintillating story and scare viewers, Avila highlighted that beef is “sprayed with ammonia” when it is actually treated with ammonia gas, not ammonia. Additionally, Avila ignored that ammonia is present in all beef as a naturally occurring substance. Ammonia hydroxide is used as a safety measure precisely because beef already has it naturally. As with the hype on the presence of BPA, saying something exists doesn’t back up any claim that it’s unsafe.

Once you’ve established a whistleblower and amped up the drama by misconstruing facts, you have to get the public involved. There’s no better way to do this than exploiting the gross factor. There’s a reason why people don’t want to see sausage being made. The saying isn’t meant to imply that sausage is unsafe, but that it’s not a line of work for everyone. Regarding the response to his book about working conditions in the meatpacking industry, Upton Sinclair said, “I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

As a former vegetarian and someone who rarely eats red meat, watching ABC News’ b-roll footage of butchering isn’t particularly appetizing, but that doesn’t make beef unsafe to consume. Add to this Avila’s obsession with calling the product “pink slime” and soon moms across the country are demanding nothing but filet mignon be served their precious snowflakes. While the 2009 New York Times report only used the phrase “pink slime” once, the Media Research Center reported that ABC News used the term 52 times in a two week span promoting Avila’s investigation. He also laughably said this beef product was “widely known now as ‘pink slime’” when it wasn’t. Perhaps one thing the network can actually take credit for is popularizing the misleading term through its own reports.

Finally, to complete the award-fishing expedition, there must be some sort of demonstrable action from the report. For ABC News’ part, targeting one company, Beef Products, Inc., in their investigation has caused the company to halt production at three plants. Due in large part to ABC News sensationalizing the story, more than 600 jobs could be permanently lost. As Media Research Center said, “The reports had an impact. Few companies can survive an extensive media assault – even when it’s on a safe and legal product we’ve all been eating for two decades. In this case, ABC cost jobs.”

The deadlines for the Peabody, du Pont, and Walter Cronkite Awards are fast approaching. This isn’t Jim Avila’s Upton Sinclair moment as much as it’s his Michael Moore moment. Who needs journalistic integrity? After all, Moore won an Academy Award!