Why you should NEVER ask the media for a retraction

Jan 29, 2015
Why you should NEVER ask the media for a retraction

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.

And yet, when you see the story- the story you worked so hard to facilitate for your client or company- you see a mistake. To you it’s a glaring error. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But it’s there, so what do you do now?

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

But if you really want to know 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.

One of those common mistakes 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 only under the most egregious circumstances the media does NOT issue retractions. Don’t ask for them.

But that doesn’t mean you should allow factual errors to go unchallenged. It just means there are better ways to ensure the correct information is published and 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 provide 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 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 odds are the reporter will be writing on your client or on 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 go looking for a fight. It just means you need to actually talk to the reporter in question. It might be easier to just 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 is just one of those things that 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 just 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. Be rude and you will destroy whatever relationship might have had with the reporter.

6. Finally, and most radically, don’t even ask for the correction. Bring the factual error to their 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 your reporter is good, the correction will run and they will appreciate and will remember how you handled a touchy situation. After all, most media are not shy about making corrections when necessary.

Have you ever asked for a correction or *gasp* a retraction? How did the conversation go? Share your stories in the comments below.

Matthew Whittle is a former reporter and editor with 10 years of newsroom experience for community newspapers in Virginia and North Carolina. Today he is a digital media communications specialist for the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the South’s leading state employee association. In his spare time he seeks to help bridge the gap between public relations professionals and the media. You can find him on Twitter @mwwhittle.

Photo: Mistake via Shutterstock

About the author

@Habitat_Gboro executive director, former journalist, PR pro & creative placemaker. Husband to a beautiful wife & dad to 2 great boys. All tweets my own.

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