Marketing Expert Testifies ABC's "Pink Slime" Reports Influenced Negative Perceptions

ABC World News Diane Sawyer - H 2016
Courtesy of ABC

The notion that the media can veer towards the negative will come as a shock to no one, but on the second day of a huge defamation trial against ABC, a marketing expert took the witness stand to break down how the network in March 2012 created a "frame" that fostered negative perceptions of Beef Products Inc.

BPI is suing ABC for billions of dollars over a series of reports about its product, officially called "lean finely textured beef" (LFTB) and dubbed “pink slime” by critics. After five years, the case has made it to trial over ABC's First Amendment objections. On Monday, the trial commenced with opening statements from BPI, arguing that it lost most of its business thanks to ABC's "pink slime" journalism, and the network, contending there were no false statements and that the plaintiff has been hiding a scary truth about its product.

Dr. Ran Kivetz, a professor of marketing at Columbia University Business School, was the first individual to take the witness stand, and BPI called him to the trial in Elk Point, S,D., to establish what ABC conveyed in its reports.

After hearing all about "pink slime" on the opening day, jurors finally got a chance to see the many World News segments that had viewers sending in alarming inquiries and had supermarket chains pulling the LFTB product from shelves. And when the videos were shown, Dr. Kivetz came along with a tally: 131 communications from ABC he counted from March 7, 2012, to April 3, 2012, which included broadcasts, tweets, web republications and Facebook posts; 361 times that the words "pink slime" were uttered or written.

"When you refer to the product repeatedly as 'pink slime,' you are creating a negative frame," said Dr. Kivetz, echoing BPI's belief that ABC should have used the official, government-approved LFTB name.

Kivetz was also directed by BPI's lawyer to address a phenomenon that social scientists call the social influence of conformity. With regards to this case, that meant that when ABC's Diane Sawyer said during the reports how the network had heard from "viewers like you" who were "concerned" and "outraged," it caused people to adopt a corresponding attitude.

Then, the marketing scientist showcased the results of a survey he supervised where hundreds of individuals around the country were asked to watch ABC's reports and share what messages they felt it conveyed. Those surveyed were specifically asked to address messages about the safety and nutrition of BPI's product, whether it was really meat, and their view of BPI overall. Not surprisingly, given such direction, many of those surveyed confirmed negative perceptions. For example, according to Dr. Kivetz, 61 percent didn't think "pink slime" was meat.

On cross-examination from ABC's attorney Dane Butswinkas, the witness had to acknowledge that what's negative isn't necessarily what's false.

Butswinkas also asked Dr. Kivetz — who according to testimony was paid $1.5 million for his work in the case — whether he had seen the many "pink slime" reports by outlets including The New York Times that had been published before ABC's own reports. The witness said he had seen some of it. Butswinkas followed up by asking whether the marketing expert had seen the extensive pre-ABC controversy about BPI's product in school lunches or references to BPI's product and e. coli and salmonella. 

ABC's lawyer also went on the attack about the analysis of the survey results. For example, while 32 percent responded the "pink slime" report conveyed the message that the product wasn't safe, Butswinkas pointed out that when given an open question about messaging without a directed topic, just 6 percent of respondents talked about safety. Dr. Kivetz also admitted he didn't include the labeling of beef products as a topic in his survey.

Finally, Butswinkas asked a series of blistering and pointed queries seemingly aimed at buttressing ABC's argument that value judgments can be nearly impossible to prove as falsehoods.

"If someone says 'fake meat,' how do you know what they meant if you didn't ask?" said Butswinkas. "Don't you think people interpret meat differently? Isn't it reasonable for someone to hold the view that ground beef isn't processed?"