Jim Romenesko reported this month that The Commercial Appeal was suckered by the spokeswoman for a supermarket chain. She said flatly that Schnuck Markets Inc. had no plan to sell its stores in Memphis. The paper was burned when Schnucks announced soon after that the stores were being sold to the Kroger Co. The story on the sale, incredibly, did not mention the spokeswoman’s denial eight days earlier.
A few days later, a Commercial Appeal story cast the deception as an ethical breach by the Schucks spokeswoman. “I gave them the best information I had at the time,” the story quoted her as saying. She might have been telling the truth. PR people are often the last to know.
“I felt like our brand – our newspaper – was damaged,” business editor Roland Klose told Romenesko, using marketing jargon.
Depending on PR people for facts is dangerous. Police reporters know better (or at least once did) than to merely write down what the public information officers say. They have to talk to the real cops. If you’re covering a small-town government, you know to talk to the highway superintendent if you want the real story. Business reporters need to rely on sources in company executive suites, rather than spokespeople.
The estimable Craig Silverman, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, rather likes the idea of holding the spokeswoman responsible for deceiving The Commercial Appeal. But the story that did so comes across as whining: We only reported what we were told! It reads like ass-covering, and that’s what it is.
The place to point out the lie was in the story about the sale.
Media across the spectrum are reluctant to call anyone a liar. That’s why we use weasel words such as “misleading,” or “less than candid.” I once came across “incongruous with the facts.” There is a way to avoid that in some cases.
In the Schnucks case, the newspaper went to the spokeswoman because of rumors that the Memphis stores were on the market. The denial should have been the starting point for further reporting, because anyone who follows business knows that statements like the spokeswoman’s are almost always lies. Don’t blame her; that’s her job. But we don’t have to publish such statements just because someone makes them. If you don’t want to do the work, don’t write about rumors.
By the time such stories reach the copy desk, it’s usually too late to stop them. I have pointed out too many times to reporters and assigning editors that a denial like that can’t be trusted, and they agreed! They believed that they were relaying lies and, because they came from the mouths of authorized company spokespeople, it was OK. It wasn’t.