Neither journalism nor media relations are exact sciences. Both have a lot of room for human error, and errors do happen. Despite the best efforts of reporters and their sources, sometimes the final story contains mistakes.
I've been on both sides of this issue, as a reporter trying hard to achieve 100 percent accuracy and as a public relations professional poring over every detail of a story to ensure accuracy. Those experiences have taught me a few things about how to achieve a favorable resolution when you spot an error in a news story. Here are a few tips:
1. Answer honestly: Is there really an error? Does the story say your company had revenue of $10 million last year when the number was actually $100 million? Or are you unhappy with the tone of an article or the way something was characterized? This is an important distinction that should influence if and how you approach the reporter.
2. If there's an error, don't let it slide. If you're looking at a factual error that doesn't seem to have a big impact, you may be tempted to say, "Oh well," and let it slide. Resist the urge. If you don't speak up, that error could reappear the next time the reporter writes about you. In my reporter days, I once had a public relations professional call me about the fourth story in a series of articles I had been writing about her organization, furious that I was using a certain "incorrect" statistic - the same statistic I had been using since story No. 1 appeared months prior. That's not an easy problem to fix, for either party.
3. Contact the reporter right away. Pick up the phone and give the reporter a call as soon as possible. Explain the mistake and ask politely ask if he or she can make a correction. Today, that often means a quick fix in an online news story - and the faster the better, so fewer readers are exposed to the wrong information. If there isn't an error, but you're unhappy with some aspect of the article, calmly make your case and see if the reporter would be willing to make a few tweaks to make the article more balanced/accurate/complete.
4. Pick your battles. Sometimes a reporter will be apologetic, easy to work with, and will happily edit a story. Sometimes the reporter will disagree with your argument and resist making changes. If the latter happens, it's important to think carefully about whether it's worthwhile to escalate your complaint to the reporter's editor. On the one hand, you certainly don't want incorrect or potentially negative information available to the public. On the other hand, if the issue is small, you may risk damaging your relationship with the reporter or media outlet by pushing too hard.
Despite our best efforts, nobody gets it right all thetime. With these tips, you should be better equipped to respond when you spot an error in a news story.
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