Fundamentals for Fixing Negative News Coverage
Mark Twain once said something like, "Never get in a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrell," and I have periodically repeated that advice to clients licking their wounds from negative media coverage. While every newsmaker should expect accuracy in reporting, nobody should feel entitled to fairness. The two should not be confused, but often are. Balance, tone and subtle word choices can make a technically accurate article completely unstasfactory.
That said, little good can come from pushing back too hard on a reporter or editor. I rarely get overly dramatic, but when clients or their legal counsel discuss options -- discussions that inevitably include the possibility of lawsuits -- I become a table pounding fanatic, advocating a less-is-more approach. Indeed, when there are apparent misunderstandings, that can be the best time to make overtures to reporters and editors that can forge long-term relationships and pay dividends in terms of accurate coverage well into the future.
The Press "was virtually bankrupt when I bought it," Connor said Monday. "We got it turned around and making money."
The Press' revenue has climbed from $900,000 at the end of 2001 to more than $3 million, Connor said. And its average circulation is now 10,000, including 7,500 readers who pay for subscriptions or request its delivery.
However, in 1998, when Lionheart acquired the Press, Connor told the Star-Telegram that the paper had annual revenues approaching $3 million and was profitable.
The Star-Telegram article in fact was accurate. It pointed out that Connor was quoted as saying that the paper had grown to have annual revenues of more than $3 million, and then pointed out that nine years ago Connor told the Star-Telegram that revenues were already approaching $3 million. Not exactly robust growth.
What really got Connor animated was the use of a single word: "however" when pointing out the apparent discrepency -- the idea that he could suggest a growing enterprise when in fact it had barely grown in revenue in nearly a decade. He said that using "however" suggested he was not being honest, writing: "That is a supposedly nice way -- but also a cheesy way -- to try to impugn my credibility without just flat-out saying that I am a liar."
This is where I would normally suggest that my client calm down, take and aspirin and maybe tone it down a little. But Connor was just getting started. He wrote that the reporter in question, Maria Perotin, had a "hidden agenda," challenged the Star-Telegram to open its books for the same period and then called for Ms. Perotin to resign.
All this and he never contacted Maria Perotin to express his concerns. Nor did he contact her editor. Nor, as far as I know, did Mr. Connor contact the publisher of the Star-Telegram.
I think you'd have to be pretty thin skinned to get as worked up about an issue of semantics as Mr. Connor did. If he consulted with others at the Business Press and they decided that the best approach to express their displeasure was to attack and impugn the integrity of the reporter, I have to wonder if they have any self awareness at all. Anyone who gathers information and moulds that information into stories that are printed for the world to see will make word choices that make someone upset. Even the Fort Worth Business Press does it, regardless of whether they consider themselves champions of business or not. It is inevitable.
Fast forward one week and Mr. Connor dug the hole deeper. In the October 8, 2007 edition of the Fort Worth Business Press he published an e-mail exchange he had with Steve Kaskovich, Maria Perotin's editor. There is no indication that Connor informed Kaskovich that he intended to publish the exchange. This is just bad form on a number of levels, but it raises an important point for anyone corresponding with a member of the media: everything you say, do or write is on the record. That said, there should be some degree of disclosure of intent lest we sink to the lowest possible level of trust.
In the e-mails, Kaskovich said he was the one who added the offending "however" and said they would consider printing a clarification even though the article was accurate. Connor continued his attack nonetheless, suggesting that if Ms. Perotin "feels unfairly attacked perhaps it will be a learning experience for her and your staff."
The guy did precisely what he accused the Star-Telegram of doing -- impugning a seemingly innocent person's character -- and suggests she'll be better off because of it.
Neither Connor nor Kaskovich responded to my efforts to get a comment. Maria Perotin declined to comment, but managing editor Rex Seline did respond with some guidance for those who are similarly concerned about a news story:
"We welcome feedback from sources and readers, whether they think we got it wrong or right. If we don’t hear anything, we assume there are no objections. We’d rather hear from people than let something stew. They can call, write or send an e-mail. If it’s an urgent matter, I suggest calling. Snail mail takes a while, and an e-mail can get overlooked if the recipient is away."
If you are concerned about a news story, should you seek a correction or clarification? Absolutely. There is an amazing echo effect in journalism and on the Web that inevitably works best if your organization is the victim of an inaccurate or unflattering news report. Such reports spread like an infestation of cockroaches, and it’s just as difficult to stomp out.
But make sure you don't march blindly ahead without fully considering the following questions:
- Is it important enough to correct or does it verge on nit picking?
- How damaging is it really?
- Is a correction worth a restatement of the entire problem to new audiences?
- Is it possible to reach the audience originally exposed to the error in other ways?
- Are you certain that you did not contribute in any way to the problem?
Here are five tips for actions to consider:
Bring the problem to the reporter’s attention. Call or e-mail the reporter directly. Be open-minded and friendly at first. Correct any inaccuracies and offer another opportunity to get the story right.
Get to the bottom of the bias. Be willing to take some criticism of the company while you calmly dispel misconceptions with facts.
Express Concerns to the Editor. If it’s clear the reporter won’t change her opinion, contact her managing editor and explain the problem. You want to be calm and focused, pointing out how you’ve attempted to clear up the problem.