Last week I listened to a great podcast by ProPublica’s Justin Elliot and Eric Umansky about what happens when sources complain about stories. In the piece, Elliot relayed interactions he and his colleagues had had with the Red Cross, who sent a 5,000-word request (longer than the reported piece) for changes to several aspects of the story, including some that were factually inaccurate and irrelevant. For example, they said the reporters failed to include specific quotes, when in fact, they were in the original story.
What ProPublica did with the complaint was interesting—and somewhat controversial. They published the Red Cross’s email online along with detailed explanations for why they weren’t going to make the requested changes. The decision to do so stemmed from the fact that they felt the email itself was newsworthy. And in fact, it revealed additional information that I think was more harmful to the organization than the original story. (Note to self: don’t let complaints about what you consider bad publicity lead to even worse publicity. If your explanation of why a correction is needed could open doors you don’t want opened, it’s probably better to just let it go.)
Many of us have been asked to request corrections of reporters. It’s not fun—and to be honest, in my experience, most times it hasn’t been warranted. Emotions can run high when people see their words in print and don’t like how they look. But asking for a correction because a source didn’t choose their words wisely is a waste of a everyone’s time. After all, it was their regret, not the reporter’s mistake. So don’t do it, and instead help the source understand why you can’t.
Still, there are instances where a correction is necessary. For example, if a report contains factually incorrect statements or information, you have a responsibility to your institution and your sources to correct the record. But before you spout off an email demanding changes to a reporter’s piece, make you sure you have all the facts and are ready to provide proof. Also consider whether the wrong information is consequential and whether a correction will change people’s perceptions. If it’s an insignificant detail that doesn’t impact the overall story, it might be more trouble than it’s worth.
Equally as important, approach the situation diplomatically and avoid accusations. After all, the best way to ensure a good relationship with the reporter, get the correction in a timely manner and avoid future mistakes is to work through the problem together, on good terms. Remember that you both want the same thing—an accurate, well-reported and fair story. And the best way to get that is to work together.