ANALYSIS: Media Relations - Policies on mistakes in need of correction/A recent survey of reporters by the Columbia Journalism Review found much room for improvement in the way news outlets deal with corrections. In a media-saturated world where news is b

George Reedy, a former press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson who went on to serve as dean of Marquette University’s journalism school in the mid-1970s, used to constantly remind his students of an old reporters’ adage: Other people try to hide their mistakes, journalists print theirs.

George Reedy, a former press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson who went on to serve as dean of Marquette University’s journalism school in the mid-1970s, used to constantly remind his students of an old reporters’ adage: Other people try to hide their mistakes, journalists print theirs.

George Reedy, a former press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson

who went on to serve as dean of Marquette University’s journalism school

in the mid-1970s, used to constantly remind his students of an old

reporters’ adage: Other people try to hide their mistakes, journalists

print theirs.



Errors in reporting are inevitable, especially in today’s 24-hour news

environment where major events are covered as they happen with little or

no time for research or fact checking. Mistakes, especially by major

media, can be a nightmare for PR people who have worked hard to craft a

client’s reputation. And more often than not, errors may appear on page

one or at the top of a news broadcast while corrections are buried

inside the paper or at the end of a broadcast cycle.



It makes for PR frustration. But interestingly, according to a survey

done recently by the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), it’s a situation

that’s frustrating to reporters and editors as well. CJR reported in its

July/August issue that of 125 senior journalists it polled, 70% said

their organizations do either a ’poor’ or ’fair’ job of informing

audiences of errors in reporting. Only 2% rated their group’s policies

on such matters as ’excellent.’



More than one-third (39%) said many errors are never corrected because

editors and reporters want to hide their mistakes. A majority felt that

news organizations lack proper guidelines for making corrections. And

almost every writer polled (91%) said newsrooms should be having more

candid discussions about mistakes and how to respond to them.



Broadcast news came in for the harshest criticism in the survey, which

CJR conducted in March with the nonpartisan research firm Public

Agenda.



Well over one-third (38%) of survey respondents said broadcast news is

the most susceptible to making reporting mistakes, followed by

newspapers (18%) and cable news (14%). And 30% said they saw no

particular difference among the three.



First acknowledge mistakes



So where does all this leave PR people? Should they simply view mistakes

as part of the game and not try to do anything about them? If they do

try, how hard should they push? And how can they track down all the

outlets where mistakes might get picked up in today’s Internet age?



Howard Rubenstein, president of NY-based Rubenstein Associates and a

heavyweight in the crisis communications arena, advises to always call

when mistakes are made. ’If the error is significant, it’s rare that I

do not get a correction,’ he says. But be aware that policy varies by

outlet. Rubenstein has found The New York Times willing to correct any

mistake that appears in its pages, while other outlets often will let

what they consider minor errors to go by without correction.



Sandra Hart, president of the Minneapolis-based Hart Group, says her

experience has been that ’about 80% of the time, they don’t want to

discredit themselves to their readership or viewership. They fight not

to recant anything.’ Hart has had better experiences getting local media

outlets to correct errors than she has national outlets. ’It depends on

the integrity of the station and the network you’re dealing with,’ she

says of the broadcast news front.



The advent of 24/7 news cycles and the proliferation of news and

news-magazine shows mean ’these people are under such extreme pressure

to perform.’ And yet, the more mistakes they make, the more they hurt

their credibility, she notes. With so many news sources available today,

the public can quickly become aware which of those do a credible

reporting job and which do not.



Some PR pros have taken a more proactive role in the process. Chuck

Werle, president of Chicago-based Werle & Associates, decided in the

early 1990s that he wanted to start his own media watch, keeping track

of what PR people, corporations and associations thought of

reporters.



For dollars 185 a year, subscribers to his press profiles can rate

reporters they’ve dealt with on eight criteria that include accuracy,

industry knowledge, interviewing skills, writing ability and integrity.

Subscribers can now view a database of roughly 400 journalists. What

Werle has found is that subscribers tend to rate journalists when

they’ve had either very good or very bad experiences. Still, most of the

writers in his database score well - the average score is 8 out of a

possible 10. Werle tempers that number, however, by noting most of those

rated are veteran journalists, not cub reporters.



And the ratings don’t negate the seriousness of the corrections

issue.



’The whole approach to doing corrections and mistakes is mishandled,’

Werle says, and argues that corrections should get the same prominence

as the original mistake. But rather than make a fuss, many pros suffer

in silence: ’Most public relations people feel if we make the reporter

or editor mad, we’re going to suffer twice as much,’ he says. He’s also

known PR people who use a mistake as a bargaining chip with a reporter,

saying they won’t tell an editor of the mistake in return for a future

favor. Werle advises against such deal making, however.



It’s clear that there’s a mandate for improvement, but what’s the first

step? Jeffrey Caponigro says he would like to see industry standards and

reforms that would hold the media more accountable and enhance its

credibility.



The author of The Crisis Counselor and head of Caponigro Public

Relations wants media outlets to ’hold themselves as accountable as they

do other companies.’ Yet who is accountable for the Internet, where

reports are moved from one site to hundreds or thousands of others?



No guarantees



Even getting a correction in The New York Times doesn’t mean every web

site that mentioned the original mistake would pick up the error as

well, notes Rubenstein, who says he’s yet to find a service that can

keep track of Internet sites. Hart agrees, saying that even traditional

media pick up each other’s stories and often miss corrections: ’If can’t

even capture that (traditional media), how in God’s name are you going

to capture (Internet errors)?’



Hart’s question is one that will make the correction issue tougher to

pin down as the 20th century winds down and the pace of news and news

transmission increases to near light-speed. But in the end, the experts

say it will always come back to the issue of integrity. PR pros need to

know the reporters who cover their clients and need to keep

communications channels open in good times and in bad. This helps

minimize mistakes and ensures that corrections are issued when the

inevitable mistakes are made.



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