Best of: Just the facts … no, these facts

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This is the next entry in our “Best of” series, in which we venture deep into the vault to replay blog opinion and insight that has withstood the test of time. Today’s post hails from July 2008. We welcome your feedback.

By Leo Valiquette

In my years as a journalist I endured my fair share of embarrassing gaffes, both my own and those of my staff (which I was often on the hook to explain, apologize for and redress.)

Despite the emphasis on clean, factual and reliable content, the occasional mistake is made in the newspaper business. Nobody’s perfect and the strain of rushing to meet a deadline can easily lead one to skip out on taking the time to check the facts through a second time.

Of course, it’s difficult to feel all that sympathetic about the plight of harried reporters when it’s your good name that’s attached to the error. Maybe they called your CEO Rob when his name is Rod. Or said your flagship product is still in trials when it has been commercially available for six months. There are the little things that don’t matter so much, such as whether your company was founded in 1989 or 1990, or the big whammies that can land you in a lawsuit — like that defamatory off-the-cuff remark that was never intended to be on the record.

Sometimes the error is clearly on part of the reporter. On the other hand, I’ve seen many examples of interview subjects horrified to see what they said on the record immortalized in print desperately backpedal and claim no such thing passed their lips.

But what makes my teeth gnash as either PR consultant or newspaper editor is the simple, easy things that can be verified within thirty seconds by journalists with this little thing called the Internet. In one client’s case, it amazed me how many little factual details about the company, its history and the features of its product were so consistently mixed up by some media despite the fact that it was all there clear as day on the online newsroom pageof the corporate website.

You can lead a horse to water, but …

All we can do for our clients is ensure we have provided all that factual information in as clear and concise a format as we can, as readily available as it can be. Never pass up the opportunity to follow up with a journalist to ensure they have everything they need to complete their story and make sure what they need is what they have.

If factual errors do appear in the final product, don’t lose your cool. Contact the reporter in polite, but firm, fashion to point out the problem, without pointing fingers. If they aren’t receptive to the idea of addressing the matter, then call their editor. A correction notice in a subsequent issue of the publication is a common method of setting the record straight. Don’t be extreme in your demands for redress, but don’t let your concern be casually dismissed.

Though it’s often seen as a nuisance by journalists, it isn’t unreasonable to ask to run through an article pre-publication to verify whatever facts, figures, proper name spellings, and dates they are using. Don’t expect to be handed a copy of the entire article. That’s not considered a reasonable request (for reasons I won’t go into here). Instead, the journalist will simply run through what they’re using with you over the phone or through an email.

The tone and angle of the story is beyond your control, but in this way you can at least ensure that the peevish journalist who’s writing unfavourable things about you at least has their facts straight. If you don’t like your portrayal but there aren’t any factual errors in the piece, you can always try and get your side of the story better represented with a letter to the editor, but that’s a topic for another time.


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