Professionalism/Jane Akre, Steve Wilson, and Posilac

IntroductionEdit

Jane Akre and Steve Wilson were investigative reporters-turned-whistleblowers when they were fired from a Florida news station in 1997 after refusing to change their report on the dangers of recombinant bovine growth hormone, commercially named Posilac. Though Akre and Wilson discovered Posilac had health risks, Posilac's producer, Monsanto, threatened the news station, which in turn pressured Akre and Wilson to change their story. Akre and Wilson's case raises several questions which we will explore in this chapter. How do organizations and companies influence the news behind the scenes, and how does this fit with journalists' code of ethics? How are whistleblowers protected in the United States? The answers to these questions impact the integrity and trustworthiness of the American news industry.

 
Recombinant bovine growth hormone-free milk

Case Study: Akre & Wilson vs. Fox NewsEdit

What happened?Edit

Jane Akre and husband Steve Wilson were hired by WTVT, a Tampa news station owned by Fox News, in late 1996 as investigative journalists. Their first project was to investigate the human health implications of Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone, rBGH (also called Posilac), in Florida's dairy cattle. Their four part series was set to air in February 1997, but three days prior to airing the first segment, their news station received a fax from Monsanto demanding to stop the story.[1] According to Wilson, the station manager told them, "Just write it the way the lawyers want it written...The news is what we say it is." [2] Akre says both she and Wilson were "fired on December 2, 1997, for refusing to falsify a news story to appease the powerful Monsanto Corporation." The pair were awarded $425,000 in damages in 2000 for being fired by WTVT, [1] but lost the settlement when the station appealed the case in 2003 and won. [3]

Why did they not get whistleblower protection?Edit

Whistleblower protection varies from state to state, but in Florida, private employees must prove six things in order to get protection from the Florida Whistleblower Act:

  • the employee disclosed or threatened to expose the company under oath in writing
  • the employee was trying to disclose a policy, practice, or activity of his or her employer
  • the policy, practice, or activity of the employer was in violation with a rule or a law
  • the employer retaliated against the employee because of the disclosure or threat of disclosure
  • the employee gave written notice to the employer of said policy, practice, or action
  • the employer had reasonable opportunity to correct the policy, practice, or activity [4]

In the 2003 appeal, the court denied Akre and Wilson whistleblower status because the court ruled that FCC policy on truthful reporting is not considered a rule or law. This means that the employer, WTVT/Fox News was not in violation of a rule or law. The court also reversed the $425,000 settlement Akre and Wilson had previously won. [3]

Whistleblower ProtectionEdit

Akre and Wilson’s case exemplifies one of many lawsuits in which whistleblowers fail to obtain protection. No comprehensive whistleblower protection law exists in the U.S.; instead, employees in a variety of sectors and states are protected to differing extents through one of several laws. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 was one of the first laws to grant federal employees protection, which was expanded in the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. This act prohibits federal agencies from retaliating against their employees because they disclosed concerning information about the agency. Private sector employees have no such blanket protection, but might obtain whistleblower protection through a piecemeal array of laws. At least 18 federal statutes provide protection to whistleblowers in certain private sectors; for instance, the Dodd-Frank Act of 2012 protects some financial employees, and the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 protects workers in the food industry.[5] All U.S. states have laws protecting public employees, but only some protect private-sector workers as well.[6]

Whistleblowers often lose lawsuits despite this seemingly wide array of protective legislation because they do not meet technicalities of the law, or could not prove that employer retaliation was directly caused by their whistleblowing. For instance, Akre and Wilson lost the appellate case because the FCC’s policy against news distortion was technically not a rule, as required by Florida’s whistleblower statute. In a survey of 95 whistleblower lawsuits between 1994 and 2009, Patrick (2010) found that 55% of whistleblowers lost their cases, 22% won, and 23% of cases were remanded for a new trial. [6] Having a law in place may not be enough incentive for whistleblowers to risk investing time and money into a case against their employers.

Food libel and “ag-gag” laws: countering whistleblower protectionEdit

Certain anti-whistleblower laws further discourage employees and citizens from voicing concerns about products, especially in the food industry. Several states have passed so-called “ag-gag” laws, which prevent investigative reporters from taking jobs at factory farms and other food production facilities, or criminalize photography at those facilities without owner consent; Iowa was one of the first. Other laws require whistleblowers to turn over images and video within 24-120 hours in order for a complaint to be valid, which hinders whistleblowers from documenting a repeated problem and makes it easier for companies to claim a concern was a one-time mistake.[7]

 
States with food libel laws are in red.

Thirteen states have passed food libel laws, which make it easier for agricultural companies and food manufacturers to sue individuals for alleged libel against their products. For instance, they place more of a burden on the individual to prove that his/her statement was true, rather than on the company to prove that the statement was false. Legislators justify these laws based on the perishable nature of food products – if a false statement cuts sales, the product will go bad and cannot be salvaged. However, these laws have also discouraged consumers from identifying true food safety concerns; even if they could prove truth and win the lawsuit, many people do not want to take the risk.[8] For instance, J. Robert Hatherill, a research scientist and professor, was pressured to remove statements about the danger of certain meat products from his book, Eat to Beat Cancer. He claimed his publisher told him, “we could win this lawsuit, but it would cost us millions, and it is just not worth it”.[9]

When whistleblowers fail, what happens?Edit

Several other cases of unsuccessful whistleblowers raise the question – when whistleblowers fail, do they discourage others from voicing concerns? Jeffrey Wigand, for instance, was dismissed from his position as the Director of Research at the Brown & Williamson tobacco company in 1993 after he discovered the dangerous and addictive effects of nicotine and cooperated with federal regulators and investigators. He states he made all the right choices and would do the same thing again, but he paid a high price to do so – Wigand received verbal abuse and death threats from members of the company, went from making $300,000 to $30,000 a year, and went through much personal turmoil which led to a divorce after he spoke up. [10]

Similarly, Courtland Kelley, the former head of General Motors’ nationwide inspection program, sued GM after he was fired for claiming that the company repeatedly ignored or acted slowly on his reports of dangerous design flaws. He lost the lawsuit, but thought he had set an example to encourage future employees to speak up. However, Steven Oakley, one of the next safety inspectors at GM, demonstrated otherwise – he stated he was too afraid to insist on safety concerns after seeing Kelley “pushed out of the job for doing just that."[11]

Akre and Wilson consider their efforts a success because their resistance and lawsuit attracted more attention around the world than they would have by simply showing their original story to viewers in Tampa.[12] However, they and many other whistleblowers risk serious personal and career consequences for upholding their moral standards.

Journalists as ProfessionalsEdit

Resulting public distrust of news stationsEdit

After Akre and Wilson lost the appeal, there was a public backlash against Fox News because people believed the case stated news stations had a legal right to lie. In the same year as the appeal, fauxnewschannel.com was created to make fun of Fox News stories. [13] In 2003, someone also created an Urban Dictionary entry called "Faux News" which they said was "a 24-hour neocon propaganda channel." [14] Their case has caught the attention of activists who are opposed to GMOs and Monsanto in particular. As shown in the picture to the right [15], activists against GMOs believe that if the public were presented with all the health implications of Monsanto’s products, they would find them too risky.

Video news releasesEdit

Though Fox News was criticized in Akre and Wilson's case, many news stations deliberately shape the information that viewers see on television through their choice of story, programming, and framing of an issue. The role of a newscaster introduces a new set of ethical questions, as they are presenting the news, rather than investigating or reporting their own story. Many television channels show video news releases, produced by a third party. These appear to be like any other ninety-second television spot, but are produced by companies and government entities. One example of this was shown in 2005 on a Syracuse, New York, ABC affiliate news station, WSYR-9. This video news release promoted chondroitin sulfate as an effective way to treat osteoarthritis, and was funded by Bioberica, the Spanish chemical company who made the drug. WSYR-9 did not disclose the source of the clip, put their station logos on the footage, and rerecorded the spot using a station newscaster as a narrator. In reality, an NIH study from the same time period found that chondroitin sulfate was barely better than a placebo.[16]

The Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies also produce video news releases. WCIA (CBS) showed 26 reports by the USDA in 3 months in 2005, and public relations companies even produced "suggested" lead-ins for the local anchors to read before the video segment. Stations benefit by spending less on creating the content, and the sponsoring agency gains less expensive airtime and ensures the story is presented as they want it to appear. However, the newscaster has to decide what they feel comfortable presenting as their own piece of news. Karen Ryan, who creates video news releases, said "I just did what everyone else in the industry was doing.”[17] The news that viewers see is often influenced by behind-the-scenes participants.

Professional code of ethicsEdit

If other fake news sources, like Fox News, are going after it then we have to respond. It’s just the responsibility we have.

– Sean Mills, President of The Onion

This quote captures one idea of journalistic responsibility and the complexities of having multiple perspectives involved. Can news be unbiased? What are a journalist’s responsibilities as a professional? The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics that provides a framework for ethical decision making. The SPJ was founded as an honorary fraternity, Sigma Delta Chi, in 1909 by students interested in "journalism careers and upholding high standards in the profession."[18]

 
Explosion of the USS Maine

During the 1890s to early 1900s, a new journalistic style was adopted to increase newspaper sales, where newsworthiness was emphasized over the facts: yellow journalism. Competition between the newspapers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst led to increased use of "scare headlines," graphic pictures, and sensationalism. Public support for the Spanish-American War was influenced by dramatic reporting of the USS Maine explosion in 1898, for instance.[19] The muckrakers of the first few decades of the 1900s fell on a different part of the journalistic integrity spectrum, attempting to bring truth to readers to incite action. Investigative journalists tried to expose the unsafe, unfair, and unsanitary conditions of the tenements, factories, food processing plants, and mines to advocate for reform. During the Progressive Era, legislation was adopted that introduced labor standards, reduced graft, and improved living conditions in response to the work of these reporters, authors, and photographers.[20]

 
Crowded New York City Tenement, by Jacob Riis, a muckraking journalist

Influenced by these journalism trends, the SPJ adopted its first ethics code in 1926, inspired by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. After reorganizing as a professional society, it wrote its own code in 1973, with four revisions since then.[21] The four main tenets are:

  • Seek Truth and Report It
  • Minimize Harm
  • Act Independently
  • Be Accountable and Transparent

Based on these metrics, Akre and Wilson were trying to act a professionals in their fields. They worked to "Seek Truth and Report It," as well as "Act Independently," but were pressured by their station to do otherwise.

ConclusionEdit

Through advertising money, companies are able to influence both news content and which stories get published. Journalists are urged through their code of ethics to act independently, but if they do so, their work may not be seen. Without further uniform protection under the law, the precedent is not in favor of whistleblowers. Whether a potential whistleblower is in engineering, journalism, or any other field, he or she may deem the monetary, career, or time risk to be too high to report a problem. More whistleblower protection is required for employees to feel that they can report concerns similar to those Akre and Wilson had with Posilac.

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b http://inthesetimes.com/issue/25/13/akre2513.html
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JL1pKlnhvg0
  3. a b http://caselaw.findlaw.com/fl-district-court-of-appeal/1310807.html
  4. http://statelaws.findlaw.com/florida-law/florida-whistleblower-laws.html
  5. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42727.pdf
  6. a b http://www.fraud-magazine.com/article.aspx?id=4294968656
  7. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/the-ag-gag-laws-hiding-factory-farm-abuses-from-public-scrutiny/254674/
  8. Cain, R. M. (2012). Food, Inglorious Food: Food Safety, Food Libel, and Free Speech. American Business Law Journal, 49(2), 275-324.
  9. http://articles.latimes.com/1999/apr/12/local/me-26635
  10. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/15/us/a-tobacco-whistle-blower-s-life-is-transformed.html
  11. http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2014-06-18/gm-recalls-whistle-blower-was-ignored-mary-barra-faces-congress
  12. Akre, J., & Wilson, S. (2006). Modern media's environmental coverage: What we don't know can hurt us. BC Envtl. Aff. L. Rev., 33, 551.
  13. fauxnewschannel.com
  14. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Faux+News
  15. https://twitter.com/naturalsociety/status/562295526691831808
  16. http://www.prwatch.org/fakenews/vnr7
  17. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/13/politics/13covert.html?pagewanted=print
  18. http://www.spj.org/spjhistory.asp
  19. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/yellow-journalism
  20. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/eleanor-progressive/
  21. http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp/