Fans of a Charlotte-based chicken chain have no need to worry. Bojangles is not planning to drop its leading menu item any time soon.
But recent controversy surrounding comments from the company’s chief executive officer remind us that nuance can get trampled in today’s clickbait world.
To some extent, Bojangles CEO Jose Armario can blame himself. Trade publication QSR recently quoted Armario saying, “I’d like to get out of the chicken business.” The quote indicated Armario knew his statement “is going to sound weird or controversial.”
Take those two lines in isolation, and the obvious conclusion guarantees publicity: Bojangles plans to abandon the food that helped the company open more than 800 restaurants in at least a dozen states.
The Triangle Business Journal asked, “Bojangles to dump chicken?” WCNC television responded, “Is Bojangles getting out of the chicken business?” WSOC suggested, “Bojangles’ CEO steering restaurant chain ‘out of the chicken business.’”
Compare those headlines to the original: “Ready to Grow Again, Bojangles Is Going All-In on Experience.”
Note the complete absence of a reference to chicken. That’s because QSR focused on the last sentence of the Armario quote, delivered just after his words about the “chicken business.” The CEO said, “I want to get into the experience business.”
The article explained that Armario was focusing on improving customer service. New restaurants might feature menus without bone-in chicken, but chicken still would be available. Existing restaurants would keep their current menus, Armario said.
That doesn’t sound like dumping chicken.
At least one Charlotte news outlet avoided the clickbait. Under the headline “Bojangles reaffirms commitment to chicken, after news outlets distort CEO’s comments,” the Charlotte Ledger offered a more complete story.
“We get that headlines can be tough to write,” the Ledger’s Tony Mecia wrote. “And in isolation, Amario’s quote — ‘I’d like to get out of the chicken business’ — sounds provocative. But it would seem to be an intentional omission to exclude the ‘I want to get into the experience business’ part. This is how CEOs talk: They like to characterize their businesses as having higher purposes, like surpassing customers’ expectations, rather than slinging chicken.”
“Likewise, news organizations should have a higher purpose than crafting provocative headlines for clicks,” Mecia added. “At a time when trust in media is at historic lows, spreading false news further erodes that trust.”
“Ideally, media should call out misinformation, not spread it,” he wrote.
Most political observers will recognize the use and abuse of selective quotation. It’s common for partisans to extract a controversial or provocative statement from its proper context. Those statements often generate political ads.
Reporters and editors can avoid playing the same game. When they fail, their viewers and readers end up with less-than-truthful stories.
In 2011, Gov. Beverly Perdue told a Cary audience, “I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won’t hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover. I really hope that someone can agree with me on that. You want people who don’t worry about the next election.”
The state Republican Party pounced on anti-democratic comments from the Democratic governor. That’s no surprise.
More surprising — and disappointing — was reaction among reporters who covered Perdue regularly. Rather than reporting her comments as a joke or “hyperbole,” some implied that the governor actually contemplated suspending 2012 elections. That action would have influenced her own re-election bid.
Had Perdue’s comments been worthy of reporting at all, journalists should have asked her to clarify whether she really meant what she said.
In a similar vein, this observer witnessed a major media outlet’s disappointing error of omission in 2013. It happened when John Skvarla, the new Republican governor’s top environmental official, spoke to the John Locke Foundation.
A reporter sitting directly in front of Skvarla reported his comment that North Carolinians would “live in lean-tos and wear loin cloths” if environmental activists secured all their regulatory goals. The quote generated furor among left-of-center groups.
But the reporter left out the key piece of Skvarla’s statement. After the “loin cloth” comment, the next words out of his mouth were, “They don’t want that, either.” He knew environmental advocates weren’t seeking to turn back the clock of progress. Skvarla’s point was that businesses, regulators, and activists needed to find common ground.
It was the exact opposite message of the one the news item conveyed.
Politicians, business owners, and the rest of us all make statements that could prove provocative when taken out of context. It does the public no good when media outlets jump at those statements to boost page views.
Instead of chasing clicks about chicken, let the audience feast on the full story.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.