Damaging & Deceptive Headlines: Ethical?

September 18th, 2012   •   13 comments   

I am inspired to call the question in today’s new age of fact checking and transparency in PR: Is writing and publishing deceptive and untrue headlines a valid practice? As many of you know, our firm represents the local Memphis grocery chain and “your everyday farmer’s market” Easy Way who turns 80 years old this year. Yesterday we pitched a well-written and organized press release containing the facts surrounding the closure of the downtown store (not the chain of stores). The original press release is here: Easy Way – Press Release.

The facts: Easy Way’s business model is shifting. The downtown store has become unprofitable as the customer base demographics have shifted elsewhere. Additionally, the city block the Carter family owns is also a potential desirable location for further development. Easy Way is not saying they are vacating downtown. They are looking at other options and are the current supplier of fresh produce to many of our downtown and Mid-South restaurants. The high cost of potentially renovating the downtown store would be put to better use someplace else.

Today, the Commercial Appeal covered the story and led with this headline.

Link to online version of the story. Is this responsible? Is this really unbiased? Are the high standards of reporting what is right and fair gone? Would this be considered so inaccurate that it could call for legal action? I can’t help but think that this is a big reason for the massive decline of print (newspapers) media and a reason for people like me to have a way to tell the real story (hence blogs and social media). When I saw this headline (and Wayne Risher, I know you didn’t write it) my heart sank for my client. Imagine being in a family business, employing 150+ people in the area and being local for 80 years and opening up the paper to this! Shameful and as an advocate for my clients, downright wrong. If the Commercial Appeal’s mantra is “if it bleeds it leads” then be careful what you pitch. A note to young PR graduates and those new to PR: It doesn’t really matter what your press release says and how much you prepare. What matters is the newspapers buy ink by the train load and once they print their headline, there’s no reversing what people think. Powerful and dangerous.

What has resulted from this headline? The crisis has been created at Easy Way – they have received numerous phone calls from customers, suppliers and restaurants based on the perception that all stores are closing. We are now sending out a media alert to clear up the confusion due to this misleading headline. The Distribution Center and all six other area locations will remain open for years to come and are even undergoing renovations and improvements.

“We can not believe the time we spent working on this story, talking to our employees and suppliers and the time we spent making sure our press release was accurate and fair, said David Carter- Secretary and Treasurer of Easy Way Produce. “I went over and over this information and these facts with the reporter on the phone and the end result is that they still print what they want. Their print headline blew us out of the water.”

Recently, Dan Rather urged PR professionals to recommit to working on behalf of the public’s best interest. When public relations operates at its best, it is helping more than a client or corporation — it is helping the general public, said Rather,
While journalists and PR practitioners may have different employers, both professions — at their best — serve the public, he said. “This country needs you and your work right now, your best work,” Rather added. [SOURCE] This poses the question: If PR professionals are operating at their best, shouldn’t the media be doing so also?

So I am writing this blog which I hope makes PRDaily’s news and I am calling for the profession to weigh in here. I want to know if it is the newspapers’ agenda to lead with negative and shocking news (and this is a business story) to sell papers. I think the days of deception are ending.

Note: Kudos to the Memphis Business Journal and Memphis Daily News for telling the business side of the story and not trying to tarnish the image of such a loved, family-owned establishment.

And, psst… Easy Way is a big advertiser in the Commercial Appeal. Not a smart move, headline writer.

The tradition will continue. You may continue to patronize Easy Way and take home the freshest produce and a vast array of local items at any of the locations listed below. Downtown will be open for business until the end of September, 2012.

  • Midtown – 596 S. Cooper
  • Whitehaven – 4599 Elvis Presley Blvd.
  • Raleigh/Frayser – 2653 James Road
  • Bartlett – 5905 Stage Road
  • East Memphis – 814 Mt. Moriah
  • Hickory Hill – 5251 Winchester Road
  • Warehouse – 4545 South Mendenhall

13 comments

  1. The era of salacious headlines and slanted stories just to move copies is definitely coming to an end. The death of print media as a viable channel will be the final nail in the coffin of this sort of “journalism”.

    Online newsreaders – which will be all newsreaders soon enough – have a TON of choice and surprisingly good BS-detectors… and little tolerance for the BS. They will move away from publications that slant or otherwise bias a story in favor of publications that offer explicitly truthful and honest reporting.

  2. Rena King says:

    Shame on you, The Commercial Appeal!!!!!!!!!!!

    Yet, you want to know why you are referred to as The Comical Appeal, The Communist Appeal or worse names…

    Easy Way…pull your ad dollars away from the CA or demand FREE future ad placement for their deceptive headlines practice!!

    • Amy Howell says:

      Rena: I have some similar comments to yours on my Face book post. The problem is that it doesn’t have to be that way. If businesses do well here in Memphis, our newspapers benefit. However, it our newspaper opts to “lead with what bleeds” and that old model is what it supports, it can expect to be replaced. The old model is outdated. The media that understand this will be the ones to survive. And the client calls the plays….if the clients aren’t happy, they’ll just go somewhere else. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Guy Cobb says:

    Amy you should organize an informal gathering of all the editors and journalists in town to discuss the future of “the news” in Memphis and the region. And more importantly, what are the journalism majors in college right now being taught. What I sense from the editors of the largest papers here is bitterness and a who cares attitude. This situation with Easy-Way is a great example. The newspapers won’t write any story that will get them sued but they’ll be more than happy to publish an inaccurate story that will ultimately get them sued for being sloppy. Reminds me of the film “Broadcast News”.

    • Amy Howell says:

      Guy: Thanks and that is a great idea and maybe a good project for the Memphis PRSA chapter. This Easy-Way example is one of many. Business owners and many of my clients say it’s just too risky to pitch to certain news outlets–that’s a first in my career of 25 years and demonstrates the lack of recources in print media. The job cuts and layoffs have created reliance on AP or wire stories (if you look at how many local stories the CA runs, you can see the difference) and the reporters only want “breaking” news–they won’t cover the good news or the business news that my clients want to read. This is true not only in Memphis but across the board. I talk regularly to folks in NYC, FL, NJ….it’s everywhere. It points to Carter’s reply here that the market is shifting to online news and many other choices for getting news. A reality for local papers and the reasons behind this shift in readership loyalty. Thanks for commenting. Good stuff.

  4. Pamela Denney says:

    As a journalist and a journalism professor, I am simply amazed at your reaction to this headline. Even more amazing is how you move from your concern about a single headline (80 and Out) to an uninformed rant about the decline of print journalism. The headline was not misleading. The drop head clearly explained that the downtown store was closing. The story was fair and balanced. I’m sorry your “message” wasn’t communicated in exactly the way you had planned. But blaming the copy desk at the CA for all that’s wrong with local news coverage? Well, that’s quite a stretch.

    Newspapers are increasingly dependent on hard-working public relations professionals like yourself to provide community news. The “My Life” section of the Commercial Appeal is written entirely by public relations professionals (something most readers don’t even realize.) If we want a serious debate about local journalism, why don’t we start there?

  5. Bianca says:

    Amy, I saw the headline, read the story, and did not get the impression that the chain was closing. The story clearly stated that Easy Way’s business model was shifting and that it was only closing the downtown store. If someone only read the headline and assumed the company was closing all of it stores, well, they should have read the story. Headlines are written to draw people in to a story.

  6. joedonaho says:

    way to go amy !!

  7. Amy Howell says:

    Thanks all! I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me. My main objective is to represent my clients and advocate for them. I think headlines are important and should reflect the story–not mislead readers. Thanks for commenting.

  8. TJ Jefferson says:

    I know it may seem unimaginable for someone to read a headline and not an entire article but it is done all of the time, especially in a news room. How do I know? I work in PR and I’ve had to emphasis to my staff that one of the main complaints of journalists receiving a press release or a news tip is reading a boring subject line (which is the email equivalent of a headline). Press releases are trashed every single day acrossed the board and conclusions are drawn about the PR rep or entity just off the subject line. So, yes, everyone can agree that headlines are written to draw readers in but it is the writer’s (and editor’s) responsiblity to make sure the headline is conveying the correct message: good, bad, or indifferent.

    In this particular incident, the “80 and out” is an absolute great headline, but I don’t think it accurately reflects THIS story and the position of the headline right above the Easy Way sign is deceiving. I don’t know if that was intentional or not but those layout tidbits are important, considering that there are still people who read physical newspapers. I know newspapers (and all businesses in general) are doing more with less but the accuracy and integrity of the work shouldn’t suffer.

  9. Sedaria says:

    Not only is it disturbing, but this is just the way of the media print. They get a story out to grab attentions at the client’s expense. Did they think about what could possibly happen if the story was printed, I am pretty sure they didn’t. If they did, it would have ran the press release that you diligently prepared for your client. They should be held responsible for their actions but I doubt if this will ever happen. The article was a blatant misrepresentation of the facts.

  10. Amy howell says:

    TJ, thank you do much and I agree (obviously). Sedaria, thanks too. And great that you both mentioned the placement (front page, top of fold) and picture. Another good point. I am studying crisis media and how crisis teams are using social media more. Very interesting media times we’re in. What newspapers need to get is that readers have choices, we’re educated and I personally don’t enjoy reading stories that include passerby comments.

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