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
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
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
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
’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
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?
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.