Calling Out a Source that Lied

The Memphis Commercial Appeal holds Schnucks accountable

As far as official denials go, it was clear and emphatic.

Lori Willis, communications director of the Schnucks grocery chain, issued this response after a reporter with the Memphis Commercial Appeal recently asked if the rumors were true that her company was selling its local stores to Kroger.

Typically, we would not comment on rumor and speculation, but I will acknowledge these rumors have gotten to a point with the media where I feel I need to tell you there is no truth to those rumors. There is no deal regarding any sale or purchase with regard to the Schnucks company.

Eight days later, Schnucks announced it was… selling its Memphis stores to Kroger. The Appeal had been hearing rumors of a sale from Schnucks employees and other sources prior to the announcement. That’s why it reached out for comment from the company.

With Willis’s denial on record, the paper had to decide whether to emphasize that or the information coming in from other sources. Multiple sources were telling it one thing. But a single, authoritative source offered an unequivocal denial. These kinds of calculations are faced by journalists all the time. We have to weigh factors such as the content of the information, the source, the timing… many things come into play.

But in this case it seemed like a fairly obvious decision: you lead with the strong denial from the company. That’s what the paper did.

Naturally, when the sale was announced, the folks at The Commercial Appeal were upset about being lied to. Their response was to write about it. The reporter went back to Willis to ask why she had lied to them. Here’s an excerpt from the story that leads with a quote from Willis:

“First of all, thanks for understanding my situation. Yes, until now, we were bound by an agreement to stay silent on the issue.”

But Schnucks had not been silent. It had said no deal was in the works.

Asked about the apparent untruth Tuesday, Willis responded that a mere “no comment” would have been misconstrued.

“I did not lie to you,” she told a reporter. “I gave you the best information I had at the time…

“Whenever you’re working on an agreement of this type, nothing happens overnight. But it’s not a deal until it’s a deal. Discussions beforehand can be very detrimental when you are trying to make arrangements.”

When a PR person provides inaccurate information, it’s usually because they made an honest mistake. They may do their best to spin something, but actively providing false information is far more rare. The problem is that journalists are often at the mercy of our sources. If a company spokesperson tells you emphatically that something is not happening, you don’t expect them to deliberately mislead you. When that happens, it destroys our source/information calculations.

Our reliance on sources is both a strength and a weakness for journalists. It works in our favor because finding the right sources can blow a story wide open, provide new and interesting information, or bring a narrative to life. The wrong sources expose us to falsehoods, manipulation, or simply waste our time.

I’ve previously written about the danger with sources, and focused on what I call the self-interested source. These people often fool us because they have a good story to tell. They lie to the press to gain some sort of benefit, or to make themselves or those they’re associated with look better.

Willis’s actions are similar in that she lied in order to gain a benefit for her employer. From her comments, she seemed to think she needed to lie and say there wasn’t a deal in order for a deal to happen. You could call it a paradox or a conundrum if it weren’t for the fact that it’s neither of those things to someone that tells the truth.

What’s particularly notable in this case is the paper’s reaction. Its business editor told Romenesko this week that he felt the false denials damaged the paper:

“I felt like our brand — our newspaper — was damaged” by Schnucks’ denials, which prompted the paper to stay silent about sale rumors, says business editor Roland Klose. Readers, he says, have accused the paper of being “derelict” by not running rumor stories, but “we felt it would be irresponsible …and it was such an adamant denial” from Willis.

Bailey doesn’t believe the PR woman was simply out of the loop when she talked to him in late August. After the deal was announced, he says, “she said, ‘We couldn’t tell you, Tom, because we had this agreement” with Kroger.

A source burned the paper, so the paper decided to burn the source by detailing her lies in a follow up report.

The resulting report may seem like nothing more than payback, but it does two important things. First, it helps readers understand why the paper published a story that led with false information. At the same time, it holds the company accountable. Second, the story functions as something of a warning to other would-be dishonest sources: You can’t lie to us and get away with it.

I suspect the paper feels justified in doing this because the transgressor is a professional communicator. She is expected to meet a higher standard, and it’s fair game to hold her to it.

That’s especially true when you consider what Willis told Romenesko. Asked why she told the paper no deal was being negotiated when that’s exactly what was going on, here’s what she said: “I gave them the best information I had at the time.”

Yep, another lie.

Correction of the Week

A profile of the Icelandic billionaire Thor Bjorgolfsson referred to his plan for a super yacht known as Project Mars, as a play on his thunder god name. To clarify: Thor is the hammer-wielding Norse god of thunder. His nearest Roman equivalent is the thunderbolt-wielding Jupiter, rather than Mars, the Roman god of war (“Icelandic tycoon still living the high life in London after the collapse of Icesave”, Business, last week, page 35). — The Observer (U.K.)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , ,