When The News Media Gets It Wrong

Publicity is tricky. You want the story and appreciate the coverage, but how do you manage media inaccuracies?

A few of us at GH have worked as journalists in another life. We will tell you in a heartbeat that the best defense against misinformation and careless reporting is constant vigilance and fact checking.

Great reporting comes from the collaborative efforts of researchers, reporters, editors and producers who play a crucial role in safeguarding accuracy. But the unfortunate reality is that today’s media groups are so short staffed that they rarely have the time to review the facts systematically and rigorously before making their report public.

Social media compounds media inaccuracies: we see the “story that got it wrong” shared on all social media assets owned by the media group, followed by hundreds (and possibly thousands) of people sharing and engaging with the posts. Everyone has a megaphone and an opinion, and we see the inaccuracies take root.

Also, it is helpful to understand the difference between a retraction and correction:

A retraction is the pulling of an entire story which includes the purging of websites and other online platforms such as social media. Often a retraction will result in the media republishing the story, prefaced by, “This is a correct version of a previous story.”

A correction is a printed acknowledgement of an error.

MEDIA TIPS

Here are our top three guidelines to manage news media inaccuracies:

Evaluate the magnitude of the inaccuracy

If the inaccuracy is “inconsequential” – such as a name poorly pronounced or spelled, a career designation incorrect, a mild exaggeration – resist the temptation to call the news editor/producer to complain. A courteous email to the journalist, copying their editor/producer is adequate. In print media, this will usually result in the publication printing a correction of a factual error in a future edition, often presented under the headline “Corrections,” “Clearing the Record,” or something similar. Online stories that are updated with corrected information will often say so. It is unusual for broadcast or cable outlets to correct inaccurate stories on-air, but the accompanying text version of the story on their website will often note that it has been updated with corrected information.

Accept that bias exists

Objectivity in news reporting is considered standard practice, but that does not mean everyone adheres to it. Some media groups align themselves with specific ideals or points of view that appeal to specific audiences. In addition, reporters are human and bring with them the same sorts of unconscious biases we all possess. Whether it is the result of their own bias, that of an editor or producer, or a systemic propensity to spin a story for a specific audience, the reporter could get the data from your story correct but then frame the report in a way that it leaves a lingering question about your company’s integrity.

For example:

“Even though XYZ University has increased the graduation rate of female anthropologists and scientists by over 40% in five years, many institutions continue to be plagued by accusations of sexism and bigotry in these disciplines. One has to ask – is this actually progress?”

This story has used the otherwise positive examples of your university’s progress to frame a suggested lack of progress elsewhere. This doesn’t directly cast aspersions on your university, but can potentially leave a bad taste with readers or viewers.

Swiftly notify media when inaccurate information negatively impacts your brand and reputation

Sometimes the news media does get it terribly wrong. Outrageously wrong. They run with an unsolicited story without contacting you or your company for comment or clarifications and have little or no context from which to draw. Time to set the record straight.

  • Evaluate the magnitude of each inaccuracy.
  • Working with your communications team, create an overview of the facts considered critical to the news story – make sure every piece of information is verifiable.
  • Reach out to the reporter/editor/producer – be careful about your language, but be clear, and make yourself available to set the record straight.
  • Request, don’t demand, a retraction or correction.
  • Underscoring all this is relationship building and creating the opportunity to generate another news story that you are now part of. Reporters are always looking for good resources – this is an opportunity to position yourself as one.

In a perfect world, the media are partners in helping tell your story and keep your public informed. And because media is a revolving door of talent, do not forget to reintroduce your company’s mission and purpose to that new reporter assigned to cover your business. Mutual trust and respect should be earned and nurtured (on both sides!). But journalists are also human, so start by building a professional relationship based on shared interests, facts and love of community. As in any relationship, it will take time to really know each other but in the end you both share the common goal of wanting a good story.

Be cautious about taking on the media. As Mark Twain warned, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” He was right.

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