You’ve probably never woken up to a case of “obiticide” while sipping your morning coffee. That’s the journalistic crime of “murder by obit,” when you read about your own death in the local news while you’re still very much alive. Whether the result of laziness, fact-checking avoidance, or poor judgment, such egregious reporting errors can carry long-term consequences for sources.
While you may not have been on the receiving end of an obiticide or other truly damaging blunder, others have. Just ask Salaheddin Barhoum and Yassine Zaimi, two men captured in a front-page New York Post photo, identified as individuals sought by federal authorities in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The men, who were not suspects in the attacks, settled a defamation suit against the publication, although neither side disclosed the terms of the settlement.
More common are less damaging factual errors, and routine oversights such as name misspellings, title inaccuracies and misquotes. And while you don’t have to be “journalistically dead” to demand a correction, you do have to be prepared with facts that prove the error wrong or with an argument for why the coverage was otherwise off the mark.
Taking on the typo
Most publications have an inordinate amount of copy to write, edit and fact check under tight deadlines. With that come inevitable typos, grammatical errors and misspellings. Most of these are probably innocuous, but you may want to consider correcting ones that creep into your quotes (“I welcome ‘there’ support” reflects poorly on you as much as the publication.) A typo is worth addressing if it interferes with consistent branding. Apple, for instance, might want to ensure publications refer to “iPhone” as opposed to “iphone.” And of course, you should ensure names and titles associated with your firm are always reported correctly.
You said “black,” they reported “white”
Sometimes the error is a factual mistake that can be easily disproved. For these errors, simply alerting the reporter to the false information, while providing the correct details, should trigger a correction. Your firm’s assets under management reported in the “millions” instead of “billions” is worth correcting. More serious errors might involve incorrect details that damage your reputation or impact your bottom line, such as a false report on pending layoffs. Most recently, ABC News reporter Brian Ross was suspended after reporting that Donald Trump told Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, to contact Russian officials before the presidential election when he should have said “after.” ABC News apologized and issued a full correction.
Sometimes, reporters assign an emotion to a source based on an assumption, or by observing behavior they believe is consistent with a particular feeling. But they can never know what you’re feeling unless you tell them expressly. It is why we often see the courtroom reaction of defendants responding to a life sentence or death sentence reported as “expressionless” as opposed to “emotionless.”
Be careful that your request doesn’t raise new questions or unintentionally confirm damaging details on a sensitive topic. The reporter might probe further. If a publication reported on your frequent “drug use, violent behavior and sexual misconduct,” it’s probably not wise to ask for a correction that reflects that you never used drugs, for example.
In some cases, the error wasn’t made by the reporter, but was based on information provided by you or another source. But an inaccuracy is an inaccuracy, and publications should seek to correct them regardless of their source. They may, however, identify the source of the error in the correction.
Correcting “fuzzy” reporting
Just because an error isn’t a “black and white” factual error, doesn’t mean it doesn’t merit a correction. Reporting can lack critical context or omit key facts. It can be misleading, unclear or “imprecise,” as The New York Times prefers to say, warranting a correction, clarification or retraction. Reporters might, for instance, base coverage on a faulty premise, drawing the wrong conclusion from the right set of facts. Coverage may be speculative or dangerously unclear.
For these requests, you should come prepared with specific arguments that demonstrate why readers or viewers might walk away with the wrong impression, painting a picture of the reality as you understand it, compared to the faulty one presented by the coverage.
Rolling Stone, for instance, told the story of a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity based on an account from an anonymous source named “Jackie,” the alleged victim. The problem was, Jackie’s account ultimately couldn’t be verified, leading to a retraction of the entire story, several lawsuits, and national media coverage that left the venerable publication with a serious black eye. Nicole Eramo, a former associate dean of students at the university, said the article depicted her as “the ‘chief villain’ of the story, full of indifference toward a sexual assault allegation,” and won a defamation suit against the reporter of the story, the media outlet and its publisher.
You shouldn’t, however, confuse a hard truth with an inaccuracy. You won’t score many points with a reporter if you take issue with a reference to your clothing factory as a “sweatshop,” when you employ workers at low wages for long hours under poor conditions. Other times, unflattering language is simply an assessment from someone entitled to an opinion, or a “truth” that lies in the eye of the beholder. If you’re Edward Snowden and you want your “traitor” descriptor to be changed to “whistle-blower,” you may experience some resistance.
Correcting the record, and making sure it stays that way
In today’s media landscape, reporters have assumed new multi-media roles and face tighter deadlines, while staffs have experienced significant downsizing. It’s easy to assign ulterior motives to an error—to conclude that a reporter skewed facts to advance a personal or political agenda. While there is the occasional rogue journalist, more often than not, the mistake was not intentional.
But reporters do dread corrections. If your valid request is turned down, it may be time to call an editor. If you feel the correction didn’t adequately address the damage it caused, it may be time to craft an op-ed to address it on your own. Failing that, you could write your own blog correcting the record. For reputational damage that calls for a more surgical image repair, PR strategists can execute an extensive scrub based on a search engine optimization analysis.
Remember, errors can linger online indefinitely. You should address the error at its origin, but also ensure it wasn’t repeated by other publications or on other platforms. Inaccurate tweets also need to be retweeted.
As inaccuracies can have severe consequences and reflect poorly on your image and credibility, you should apply the same discipline you expect from reporters to your own copy. Proofread, fact-check, spell-check and re-read. To help, HubSpot offers a free writing style guide on eliminating typos and grammatical errors.