How to Respond When the Media Gets It Wrong
Most journalists pride themselves on checking their facts and informing the public about all manner of information. However, mistakes happen and in the world of digital media, the old proverb holds truer than ever: a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still getting its pants on.
So what can you do?
First, stay cool. While it can be frustrating and expensive to correct misinformation, attacking the person who made the mistake rarely has the desired effect. When was the last time you bent over backwards to help someone who yelled at you or embarrassed you in front of others? So, take a deep breath and be polite.
The nature of the mistake and the public response should guide your next move. Mediabugs.org categorizes journalistic mistakes as follows:
- Error of Omission
- Ethical Issue
- Faulty Statistics or Math
- Headline Problem
- Mistaken Identity
- Photo/Illustration Error
- Simple Factual Error
- Typo, Spelling, Grammar
Clearly, some of these are more damaging than others.
If a story includes a factual error, a typo, or some other black-and-white mistake that’s relatively easy to correct, most reputable media outlets will print a retraction and correct the online version of the story. To facilitate this, call or email the journalist and outline the error. If you have documentation supporting your position, share it.
If a story misses a critical fact, it’s still important to share this with the journalist, but it’s less certain as to whether the media outlet will print a correction. As journalists scramble to keep up with a 24-hour news cycle, they sometimes go to press before they’ve collected all the salient facts. The hope is that by bringing the omission to the journalist’s attention, he or she will, at the very least, use the new information if the story continues to develop.
Almost regardless of the mistake, it’s important to get the corrected information out as soon as possible. Depending on the severity of the mistake, informing the journalist is only the first step. If the mistake threatens your reputation, get in touch with your stakeholders directly to share the facts (see my article on how to develop clear, concise messages). Consider using social media, advertising and other media outlets to tell your side of the story. Hold press conferences. Schedule radio interviews. Make a YouTube video. Find reputable surrogates who will share the truth for you, and who will strongly defend your integrity.
Please note that I said, “Almost regardless of the mistake… ” Before you go completely nuts, pounding your chest and excoriating the folks who got the story wrong, make sure it is not your bruised ego making a mountain out of a molehill. Sometimes, it’s best to let a little correction run and leave it at that. You don’t want to draw more attention to the mistake than would have occurred otherwise.