Love might mean never having to say you’re sorry, but not when it comes to mistakes by the news media

Many years ago there was a well-known book that became a popular movie in 1970. Both were named “Love Story.” And the most famous lines from that film was, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” For years after the film came out you would see that line printed on everything from pillows to tee shirts.

That might apply to some relationships (certainly not all of them!), but when it comes to the news media making a mistake, when should you ask for a correction? When should you ask them to say they’re sorry? The answer is a bit complex.

In some situations, it’s better to just let the mistake go by without mentioning it. For instance, let’s say it was a small story and the mistake was minor. Let’s say it was in the back of the paper and not on the front page. Let’s say it’s a neutral story. In such a scenario, it might be better to not ask for a correction/apology. It will embarrass the reporter and could strain your relationship with that person.

Instead, in those situations, I recommend simply contacting the reporter and gently pointing out the error. Explain that you’re not asking for a correction but just wanted to make sure they had the correct facts in case they ever write about that subject in the future.

But there are some situations that demand asking for a correction. For example, what if it’s a controversial issue and a large, negative story about your client or organization appears in a prominent place in the paper? If that story contains a factual error or a typo that casts your side in a bad light, you have no other recourse. You must ask the reporter and/or their editor for a correction.

Be firm but polite in your request. Point out the error and why you feel it’s important that the paper correct it.

Here’s another scenario: it’s a controversial issue, your organization feels it’s in the right, popular opinion probably doesn’t side with you, and the news article contains a slight error that does not impact the story as a whole.

Some folks would say you should demand an apology/correction. I don’t agree. I feel that only accomplishes two things, both of which are not good:

1) It extends the life of the story. Whereas the paper might not have any plans to print another article on this negative issue, your asking for a correction assures that the topic will again appear in print. Those readers who missed the original article are now made aware of it when they read the correction.

2) It can damage your relationship with that reporter because the retraction will professionally embarrass him or her.

So if there is such an error made, ask yourself if it’s worth asking for the correction. In almost all cases, it’s not (in my opinion). Instead, follow my advice above: gently point out the error and explain you’re not asking for a correction but just wanted to make sure the reporter has the correct facts in case they ever write about that subject again (and then cross your fingers they don’t).

If you’re lucky — and talented — you might be able to fix a mistake before it ever hits the paper and avoid having to demand a correction. A key to achieving this is speed.

Years ago I worked with a daily newspaper reporter on a story that I knew would be high profile. He advised me the story would be coming out in the Sunday edition. That paper typically sold its Sunday edition on Saturdays in supermarkets and then delivered it to its subscribers’ homes the next morning.

On that Saturday afternoon I rushed to my nearest supermarket and picked up the paper. I was horrified to see there was an error in the front page story. I think one word had been inadvertently left out, which changed the meaning of a crucial sentence and altered the whole tone of the article.

I immediately called the newspaper’s copy desk, explained who I was and the error I had spotted, and then asked for a correction. The paper agreed to take action.

By the time the edition was delivered to everyone’s homes the next day, the error had been fixed, thereby saving the paper from having to print an apology. My boss at the time had seen the error in the paper on Saturday but then was amazed when he saw the correct story in his home edition!

These days, many print stories hit the internet before they are actually published. Make sure you read the online version as soon as you can and let the reporter know if anything needs correcting before the paper hits the streets.

There is another way to avoid having to ask for a correction/apology, but I don’t recommend it unless you have a real solid relationship with the reporter or the story involves a highly technical topic that the reporter is struggling to comprehend. In those cases, you could offer to read the story before it gets published/posted. Many reporters would never agree to such an offer/request, but in some rare cases they might. Use your best judgment.

Love might mean never having to say you’re sorry, but being a reporter does not. And for a reporter, that’s the last thing they want to have to do. It means they messed up and nobody likes to admit that.

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