There was a post in Ragan’s PR Daily on June 21 about the proper way to ask a newspaper for a correction. As a former newspaper reporter and editor, it always interests me to see a PR person’s take on how newspapers function. Nine times out of 10, the advice is off base. This particular blog entry was no exception.
So, in an effort to try and shed a little light on the way newspapers really work, here’s my advice for asking a newspaper for a correction.
The first thing to understand about newspapers and the reporters that fill them with information each day is that the journalist didn’t intentionally write something in error about your organization or event. It was an honest mistake, just like the ones all of us make in our lives. On any given day, you can be certain that there are likely more than a few errors living in your local daily paper simply due to the sheer volume of information that’s being published. The mistake wasn’t personal.
The author of the Ragan piece is correct in advising her readers to ask for a correction. She says that many PR folks suggest that you shouldn’t seek a correction because of some issue with saving ammo for big battles. I’m not really sure what she’s getting at there, and if there are PR pros out there reading this maybe you can expand on that idea. She goes on to say that the reason you should seek a correction is so that other reporters who write about your organization won’t repeat the error in future issues. She’s making a broad assumption that newspapers are these organized, efficient bastions of information that get updated like some sort of Wiki on every subject they report. This is nowhere near the case, at least at the five dailies where I have worked.
The reason you ask for a correction is because the initial information that was reported was wrong. That’s it, plain and simple.
Who you gonna call?
So who do you call to seek the correction? Well, the Ragan writer suggests you call the reporter. Nope. Reporters have absolutely no power to determine whether a correction will get published in a future edition of the paper. The best person to call is the reporter’s editor. If it’s a larger, metro daily and the article appeared in the business section, for instance, give an assistant business editor a buzz. If it’s a smaller paper, call the managing editor directly. Either editor will determine if the error rises to the level where a correction is warranted, and they will ensure it’s printed.
When I was an editor, it was common for a reporter to approach me about a mistake he made in a recent piece. Then, it was up to me to do a little digging to ensure the correct information was gathered and that a correction was written. The correction should not be left to the reporter. A correction is a staff issue. The reporter might have written the piece, but it’s likely that a section editor and copy editor both missed it. The newspaper takes the blame for the mistake.
Also, calling an editor respects the newspaper’s chain of command. When a source called me with a complaint or concern about a story we published, I would listen to them, jot down some notes, then collect my thoughts before venturing to the reporter’s desk to inquire about the piece. Fortunately, this approach usually takes most of the emotion out of the correction process, and is less likely to result in a confrontation between source and writer. That keeps everyone involved focused on getting the information right, not dealing with hurt feelings on either side.
A correction isn’t a guest column
It’s also critical to have realistic expectations about what a correction is and what it isn’t. In the piece I’ve been referencing, the writer suggests that you could also submit a letter to the editor – and even a guest column – to ensure that the information about your company or event is correct. By all means, knock yourself out writing those pieces. Just don’t be surprised when neither of them find their way into the paper. The reason, especially at larger metro dailies, is that editorial space is at a premium. If there has already been a story and a correction written about the same topic, the likelihood that there will also be a letter and a guest column is slim to none. At smaller papers, you might have a better shot at followup like this but any editor worth her salt isn’t going to keep publishing the same topic again and again, no matter how desperate she might be to fill the space.
And then, near the end of the Ragan piece was this dandy that left me scratching my head: “For super-duper blunders that the publication refuses to correct, a well-written letter from your attorney might be the solution. Media outlets hate lawsuits and will do almost anything to avoid them,” the author wrote.
I found this idea so ridiculous because if the paper has made a serious error, it will correct it. But it won’t be because they hate lawsuits and will do anything to avoid them. A quality newspaper corrects errors because getting the facts straight protects the publication’s credibility. Credibility and trust is all a newspaper really has. Once that has been broken, it is very difficult to repair, no matter how prestigious or well-respected the newspaper might be.
The reality is that a company or individual can complain and sue all they want but the threshold for proving libel or slander in the U.S. is pretty high. And it’s very costly. Also, the goal with a correction is to get the information right, not to create a climate of superiority. Threatening a lawsuit is a quick way to ensure that your organization – and anyone associated with it – will not be included in future editions of that publication, or any publications that might be owned by the same company.
So, the next time a newspaper story gets the facts wrong about your company or an event in which you’re involved, remember the old adage about killing them with kindness. A polite, friendly voice on the other end of the phone is a welcome respite for a harried editor. The more you work toward contacting the right person and keeping a level head, the better chance you have of getting the information corrected.