Of all the sins national media members are accused of committing — an addiction to sensationalism, an aversion to fact-checking, an obsession with celebrity — the one transgression that’s tough to absolve is their willingness to distort reality in search of a story.
The cardinal rule that all would-be reporters are supposed to learn in Journalism 101 is that you don’t bend the truth or fudge the facts.
No way, no how, never ever.
Yet that’s exactly what happens time and again: Brand-name magazines, big-city newspapers and supposedly reputable websites publish article after article that by any reasonable standard are, to be kind, seriously exaggerated.
Here’s today’s example, from Fortune magazine’s website:
“Sales of meatless and vegetarian products are soaring, although only 7% of U.S. consumers call themselves vegetarian,” the story began. “The hunger for fake meat — or meatless meat — is getting bigger.”
With that lead, you’re expecting some blockbuster numbers, right?
The article continued, “The latest sales numbers of plant-based meat alternatives reached $553 million in 2012, representing a growth spurt of 8% from 2010.”
First of all, the sales data is from 2012? And Fortune’s editors (apparently) approved the use of a market research data that’s four years old? Unforgiveable, especially because the point of the story is the phenomenon of “soaring sales” of meatless meat. If that were true, one would expect the story to contrast 2012 versus 2016.
You can’t demonstrate soaring unless there are comparative data: Sales back then, versus sales right now.
Second, is Fortune — of all publications — really trying to sell its readers on the notion that an 8% “spurt” in sales represents something noteworthy? There’s not a boardroom in America that would be excited about 8% sales growth over two years (which is actually only 4% a year).
Four percent annual growth in any major corporation would be cause for concern, not celebration. Heck, if that persisted for any length of time, it would likely get the CEO fired.
Ad while $553 million might be a respectable top line sales figure for a national food company, it’s hardly anything to write about when it represents an entire category. Granted, that total is likely much larger now than 2012, but consider that the wholesale value of beef alone topped $105 billion in 2015, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Weak and weaker
But let’s get back to the premise that Fortune offered as the teaser for this story: consumer demand for meatless products.
After several quotes from some marginal players (Hot Dang Grain Burgers, Sweet Earth Natural Foods, and the Wheatsville Food Co-op in Austin, Texas), the article finally tackles the burning question: Why are sales of meat alternatives “soaring?”
Answer: “Those in the know say better health habits among consumers, along with tastier products, are providing a healthy financial benefit for businesses and investors. Also, there is a growing sense that the meatless meat industry is more environmentally friendly.”
“Those in the know?” That’s even weaker than the utterly meaningless, “Some people say . . .” which appears all too frequently in way too many lame attempts at a serious news feature.
Of course, in the interests of “telling both sides of the story,” the article noted that, “The meat industry is fighting back,” pulling a statement from a meat industry association's website: “Scientific research affirms that meat and poultry are packed with essential and highly absorbable nutrients and can play a vital role in a healthy diet.” (Editor's note: The author didn't actually contact a meat industry association for a response)
When a story is structured so that the reader ends up where the reporter began, that’s not journalism. It’s opinion masquerading as honest reporting.
And it doesn’t belong on a website that wants to be taken seriously as source of business news.
Because stories like this soaring sales tale are anything but.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.