The right (and wrong) way to get a journalist to fix a mistake

Feb 4, 2024

No one likes making mistakes.

For journalists, goof-ups aren’t just embarrassing; they’re potential career poison.

As someone who has been on both sides of journalistic screwups – as a reporter and now as a publicist – I empathize with both.

While to err is indeed human, blunders in news stories can and should be corrected.

Despite a reputation among a certain percentage of the public as two-faced creeps looking to tarnish anyone’s reputation in exchange for a few extra online clicks, the overwhelming majority of journalists are decent human beings who dread making mistakes as much as most sane people would dread getting pantsed on live television.

Here are a couple of things not to do when attempting to get a journalist and his or her media outlet to fix errors:

DON’T GO BALLISTIC: If you’ve been genuinely libeled, that’s a whole other thing. But most journalistic mistakes are of the “Oops, I screwed up!” type, including misspellings of names, incorrect figures, lazy reasoning, or slapdash writing.

No matter how stupid the error, resist the urge to tell the reporter just what a miserable, dumb piece of loathsome whatnot he or she is. Going Defcon 2 right away is overreaction.

What’s more, unless you want to cut ties with the media outlet, this can damage

whatever prospects you may have for a positive, long-term relationship with that journalist (and his or her colleagues).

DON’T DEMAND A RETRACTION: Retractions are reserved for epic screwups. As in, errors that rise to the level of libel or defamation, meaning journalists deliberately made crap up or

carelessly repeated bullshit that harmed your reputation. In such cases, the news outlet will in effect publicly confess they screwed up and erase the story from all platforms. Lawyers may even be involved.

Instead, in most cases where a mistake was made, a correction is about as much as you’re likely to get. At least these days corrections can be made (and announced) in online versions of stories, whereas back in the day they were typically buried on page six, where hardly anyone noticed.

Now, here are some tips for getting a news outlet to correct mistakes:

After you’ve calmed down, email the reporter. Sure, you can call, but it’s generally best in such cases to document your efforts to correct a mistake rather than rely on the potential for faulty memory of telephonic conversations. In your email, (politely) tell the reporter his or her error or errors, and ask when a correction can be issued online. Most reporters will want to fix things as quickly as possible.

Focus on errors of fact. If, say, you’re offended that a reporter described your house as ramshackle and you regard it as historic, this is likely more a matter of opinion than real error. You’re free to complain about such things but do so respectfully and don’t nitpick.

Contact the boss. If the journalist doesn’t respond (give it a few tries) or refuses to correct errors, you should contact their editor or producer. Such situations tend to be rare, as few journalists enjoy making mistakes and angering their bosses. Of course, if you still don’t get satisfaction, you may need to take your complaints to the publisher or executive producer. Luckily, such incidents are exceedingly rare.