This is one of the great dilemmas for corporate affairs practitioners.

Journalists hate owning up to making mistakes, but it happens. And the more pressure placed on journalists by tThe_Scream-cropped-150x150heir bosses to deliver on volume, the more the mistakes – simply because there’s less time.

What do we do when a journalist makes a mistake?

1. Is it worth complaining about? The hard reality is that almost every story contains minor mistakes, or ‘opinions’ based on false assumptions. Is this one really a big deal?  Also, before you respond, how are you feeling? Are you angry? If so, beware: vengeance is best served cold, so sleep on it. Ask a colleague if she/he thinks it’s a big deal. Sometimes it’s better to keep the relationship with the journalist.

2. Complain to the reporter. So it’s worth escalating and you need to complain. Before the call, decide what you want as an outcome: a retraction, a correction online, an apology? Or a better story next time? During the call, be crystal clear on the complaint – keep it simple, stay with the main issue and don’t get sidetracked (the easiest way to lose and argument).

3. Speak to the editor. If that fails, take the issue upstairs. I’ve only dealt with two editors who will knowingly publish a story that is factually incorrect. Both wanted controversy over accuracy. In your conversation, just state the facts, don’t attack the editor or the journalist. Can you frame it as an ‘honest mistake’ or an ‘understandable mistake’? Avoid a fight; remember, this isn’t about winning an argument, but getting a good outcome.

A good outcome here is a correction to the online story, or a printed correction in tomorrow’s paper.

4. Write a followup story. An option is to ask the paper to accept a letter to the editor (150-200 words) or opinion piece (400 – 600 words). With the immediacy of online journalism these days it is not always enough to correct the mistake, so you may need to take the story forward with fresh information or a new angle.

5. Use lawyers. This takes experience because it can spin out of control. You engage a media lawyer to strong-arm the publication; under threat of court action you can demand a retraction or correction. These days editors are on tight budgets and most will not want to go to court, so this tactic can be effective. But even if this doesn’t succeed you have warned that editor to be careful next time. BTW – the editor will not like you for this tactic.

6. Use social media.  An increasingly viable option.

7. In future don’t go there, go elsewhere.  Sometimes journalists and editors have agendas, and there is simply nothing you can do about it. Accept it and go elsewhere.

Peter Wilkinson

Author Peter Wilkinson

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