Why you should never ask a journalist for a retraction

Seeking a correction about wrong or garbled information is perfectly fine. How you go about it, though, makes all the difference in the ongoing relationship with your media contact.

You do your best to pull all the important facts together. You lay them out neatly for the reporter. You make sure he has your contact information in case he has any more questions.

Yet, when you see the story—the story you worked so hard to facilitate for your client or company—you see a mistake. So, what do you do now?

It’s a problem explored recently by Shelley Pringle on her Polaris blog in a post titled, “When to ask for a media retraction.”

If you really want the answer, it’s quite simple: You never ask for a retraction.

However, you can ask for a correction.

What’s the difference? Isn’t it just semantics? Not to the journalist you’re going to be calling.

A common mistake that PR pros and many others make is not understanding that a retraction and a correction are different.

A retraction is an admission that a media outlet got a story completely wrong. With extremely rare exceptions—and those happen only under the most egregious circumstances—media outlets do not issue retractions. Don’t ask for them.

That doesn’t mean you should allow factual errors to go unchallenged. It just means there are better ways to ensure that the correct information is published and that your relationship with the reporter is maintained.

To help guide you down this path, here are six tips:

1. Be sure the factual error was actually the reporter’s fault. I can’t tell you how many times, when I was a reporter or editor, that I had somebody call to tell me about a mistake only to discover that wrong information had been provided. Yes, reporters should always double-check and verify, but if you’ve provided the wrong information, then you share some of the blame. Own up to it, and apologize. Even better, make sure you’re prepared before you speak to a reporter, and if you realize afterward that you made a mistake, let him or her know ASAP.

2. Always tell the reporter about factual errors. Some people say that unless it’s a major mistake you should let it go. I disagree. The only thing reporters and editors hate more than a mistake is a repeated mistake. After all, it’s their credibility on the line, and the odds are good that the reporter will be writing about your client or about a similar subject again. You have a responsibility to try to make sure even minor mistakes aren’t repeated.

3. Don’t be afraid of confrontation. This doesn’t mean you should go looking for a fight. It just means you have to talk directly to the reporter in question. It might be easier to leave the correct information in the comments section of a story online or even to call an editor or publisher, but don’t take that easy way out. Reporters would much rather hear about their mistakes from you privately than from their boss or in a public forum.

4. Do not demand that a correction be run in the same space as the original story. This will never happen. All media outlets have a standardized way for dealing with corrections. It might not be fair, and you probably won’t like it, but it’s not going to change.

5. Remember, you don’t like having your mistakes pointed out either. You will be dealing with somebody who is embarrassed and whose professional pride has suffered a self-inflicted wound. That means this could be one of the most important interactions you ever have with a reporter. At this point, once you’ve decided to call, it’s simple-just be understanding and gracious. If you’re rude, you will destroy whatever positive relationship you might have enjoyed.

6. Finally, and most radically, don’t even ask for the correction. Bring the factual error to his or her attention, and then trust the reporter to do the right thing. The point is to make sure the correct information is published-not to focus on who’s right and who’s wrong. If the reporter and editor are good, the correction will run and they will appreciate and will remember how you handled a touchy situation. After all, most journalists are not shy about making corrections when necessary.

Matthew Whittle is a former reporter and editor with 10 years of newsroom experience for community newspapers in Virginia and North Carolina. You can find him on Twitter @mwwhittle. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists by searching their bios, tweets and articles, and pitch them to get more press.

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Topics: PR


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