Tyson Foods is once again the target of an undercover sting by the anti-industry agitators Mercy for Animals.

The animal rights extremists sent a list of 33 abuse accusations to a Mississippi Justice Court based on undercover video footage made by one of their operatives and purporting to show employees at the company’s Carthage, Miss., poultry plant allegedly engaging in behavior the activists are hoping will trigger criminal charges.

About the only noteworthy aspect of yet another heavily edited video clip was an introduction to the undercover footage provided by the actress Candice Bergen.

Okay, that was a slanted version of events, done deliberately to highlight the equally sloppy reporting conducted by virtually every news source covering the story. If you’ll notice, I called the operation “a sting.” I labeled the video scenes as people “allegedly engaging in behavior” and I called the activist group “extremists,” which is a pretty loaded term.

Had my version been published as written, an editor would have been justified in asking, “Murphy, what the hell are you doing? Just stick to the facts.”

Which is the exactly appropriate response to the way this story actually was written.

For example, here’s how Food Safety News reported the story, a version that was picked up verbatim by both activist and industry websites:

“In the undercover footage shot at a Tyson poultry plant, Mercy for Animals’ video showed:

  • Workers punching, throwing, beating, pushing, and otherwise tormenting frightened animals for fun.
  • Birds painfully shocked with electricity but remaining fully conscious when their throats are cut open.
  • Improperly shackled birds getting their heads ripped off while they are still alive and conscious.
  • Chickens dumped on top of each other on a conveyor belt, causing many to suffocate under the weight of other birds.

“Mercy for Animals has lodged some 33 misdemeanor accusations against the company and its employees. A Mississippi Justice Court will review the affidavits and decide whether or not summons will be issued in this case. Justice Courts in Mississippi typically handle DUIs and traffic tickets issued by county and state police and other civil cases.

“An investigator for Mercy for Animals reportedly worked under cover for six weeks at the Tyson’s facility, producing the candid video showing the poultry abuse.”

That, my friends, is simply bad journalism. It’s so unprofessional, and so subjective one wonders if the reporter secretly sides with the activists, and slanted the story accordingly.

A language lesson

Look at the use — I should say misuse — of words that have no business showing up in a news story. “Tormenting frightened animals.” There’s no way, legally or otherwise, to ascertain if someone on a video clip is tormenting a chicken, nor whether the bird is “frightened.” That’s speculation, and it doesn’t belong in a news story.

Plus:

  • Citizens can’t file “misdemeanors.” That’s up to prosecutors.
  • The video isn’t “candid.” That implies real-time footage.
  • And there is no “abuse” unless it’s legally determined as such.

Most outrageously, the story calls the activist who secured a job under false pretenses, and then spent his time capturing video footage that was likely heavily edited before being released, “an investigator.”

No, he’s not. Investigators look at facts. They review all the evidence. They spend time interviewing all parties involved, and they review all relevant materials before reaching any conclusions.

An activist determined to trash a company’s reputation, hoping for punishment, sanctions or even closure of operations is not an investigator.

To use that term is to distance yourself from the professional guidelines every budding reporter learns in Journalism 101.

It’s egregious, it’s lazy and it’s worthy of scorn when someone whose byline appears on a story that’s supposed to inform readers objectively departs so radically from the norms of the profession.

And sadly, it’s become so commonplace, I doubt if very many people who read that story would even notice.

But I hope that you will.

I also hope you will call out every reporter or writer who falls into a similar trap.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.