Tag Archives: Reporting tips
by Liz Hester
One of the biggest expenses many people will incur is the cost of a long-term illness or recovery from an accident. It’s no secret that hospital stays are expensive and that’s not likely to change even after the Affordable Care Act. Covering these costs will be an important part of business journalism going forward.
The New York Times had a story about Kaiser Permanente and how it’s just not making enough money despite being held up as a model for what the system could be:
When people talk about the future of health care, Kaiser Permanente is often the model they have in mind.
The organization, which combines a nonprofit insurance plan with its own hospitals and clinics, is the kind of holistic health system that President Obama’s health care law encourages.
Kaiser has sophisticated electronic records and computer systems that — after 10 years and $30 billion in technology spending — have led to better-coordinated patient care, another goal of the president. And because the plan is paid a fixed amount for medical care per member, there is a strong financial incentive to keep people healthy and out of the hospital, the same goal of the hundreds of accountable care organizations now being created.
Yet even with all of its effort, its chairman and chief executive, George C. Halvorson, acknowledges Kaiser has yet to achieve the holy grail of delivering that care at a low enough cost. He says he and other health systems must fundamentally rethink what they do or risk having cost controls imposed on them either by the government or by employers, who are absorbing the bulk of health insurance costs. “We think the future of health care is going to be rationing or re-engineering,” he said.
Mr. Halvorson is convinced that Kaiser’s improvements in the quality of care save money. But he also says that the way to get costs lower is to move care farther and farther from the hospital setting — and even out of doctors’ offices. Kaiser is experimenting with ways to provide care at home or over the Internet, without the need for a physical office visit at all. He also argues that lower costs are going to be about finding ways to get people to take more responsibility for their health — for losing weight, for example, or bringing their blood pressure down.
And there are other concerns, such as whether an all-encompassing system like Kaiser’s can really be replicated and whether the limits it places on where patients can seek care will be accepted by enough people to make a difference. Or whether, as the nation’s flirtation with health maintenance organizations, or H.M.O.’s, in the 1990s showed — people will balk at the concept of not being able to go to any doctor or hospital of their choice.
Besides paying for the care, the increased sophistication of data gathering and computer equipment is making what to do with patient information another big piece of the health care story. The Wall Street Journal had this story about one insurer’s answer to the question.
As it prepares to vie for new business from some of the 30 million additional people entering health exchanges through the Affordable Care Act next year Aetna Inc. is looking to analytics as a means of lowering the cost of some coverage. According to Michael Palmer, head of innovation for the Hartford, Conn.-based insurance company, Aetna is using a new analytic platform to predict which ailments its members are likely to contract over the coming year in order to lower the odds that they will develop cardiovascular disease, one of the more expensive and endemic diseases it has to cover.
This information could help improve health outcomes for patients, dramatically lowering health care costs for themselves, their employers and Aetna itself, says Mr. Palmer. “Better outcomes also lead to better costs. It’s a virtuous cycle,” he told CIO Journal Wednesday after a presentation at the Structure: Data conference in New York. But Mr. Palmer also noted that it’s difficult to get people to act on the information they’re given, even if it’s for their own good.
For example, Aetna can tell its members if they’re likely to develop cardiovascular disease. It does this by tracking data from lab results, pharmacy data and claims data of its 18 million members, looking for data showing that a given individual suffers from three of any of five factors – high cholesterol, high blood pressure, low HDL (so-called good cholesterol), high triglyceride levels, and abdominal girth – all of which are indicative of metabolic syndrome. “We found we can predict at the individual level the probability of their getting metabolic syndrome in the coming year,” Mr. Palmer said.
Combine this information with preventative medicine and it’s likely that our society can lower the cost of health care. It would be nice if people had the information to take steps to better their health and take care of themselves.
As more of the population ages, it will be increasingly important for the business media to cover all angles of healthcare and the companies in the industry. But the most important part will be helping people connect the pieces of information and make the best decisions possible.
by Chris Roush
Ben Steelman of the Wilmington Star-News in North Carolina reports that the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, which is researching and writing investigative business journalism stories, has achieved non-profit status.
Steelman writes, “As a result, SIRF will function entirely on donations, with funds being funneled through Independent News Network. Boyd — who specializes in detailed, document-driven investigations of corporations and investments, thinks that’s important to ensure the independence and integrity of his reporting.
“A former business writer for Fortune and The New York Post, Boyd earned an M.A. in history from the University of North Carolinw Wilmington. His former website, The Financial Investigator, gained a following amont individual investors, according to the American Journalism Review. Huffington Post once called him one of the 25 “most feared” financial reporters in America.
“SIRF boasts an impressive board of directors, including Christopher Roush, director of the business journalism program at UNC-Chapel Hill, Bloomberg News columnist William D. Cohan (“House of Cards”) and former Fortune editor Bethany McLean (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”). At the moment, though, the staff consists primarily of Boyd, along with some freelance researchers.
“Since forming late last year, SIRF has completed two long, detailed reports, one on the weight-loss and nutrition network ViSalus and one, posted March 11, on Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management. Both are filed under Boyd’s byline.”
Read more here.
by Liz Hester
The fact that retail sales were up 1.1 percent made headlines in the major business papers and web sites.
But the placement of the so-called core number, the one most watched by economists and other market analysts, in various stories is something to note.
The New York Times put the core number in the fourth paragraph and spent several focusing on it near the top of the story:
Retail sales in the United States rose more than expected in February, suggesting that consumer spending this quarter will hold up despite higher taxes.
The Commerce Department said on Wednesday that retail sales increased 1.1 percent last month, the largest rise since September, after a revised 0.2 percent gain in January.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected retail sales, which account for about 30 percent of consumer spending, to rise 0.5 percent last month after a previously reported 0.1 percent gain in January.
So-called core sales, which strip out automobiles, gasoline and building materials and correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, rose 0.4 percent after advancing 0.3 percent in January.
The rise in core sales was the latest suggestion of momentum in the economy even as fiscal policy tightened, marked by the end of a 2 percent payroll tax cut and an increase in tax rates for wealthy Americans in January.
The gains in core sales in the first two months of the year offered hope that consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the American economy, might not be slowing much this quarter after growing at a 2.1 percent annual rate over the last three months of 2012.
The first mention of core sales in the Wall Street Journal story was in the seventh paragraph and didn’t last long:
Retail sales excluding gasoline, automobiles and building materials—a figure watched closely by economists who use it as a truer gauge of consumer behavior—was up 0.36% in February, the Commerce Department said.
“The combination of higher gasoline prices and higher payroll taxes limited household purchasing power at the start of (the first quarter),” economists with UBS Investment Research said earlier this week. “That said, a strengthening labor market, rising tax refunds and a more confident consumer should provide important support to the consumer later in the quarter.
Wednesday’s report showed spending dropped 1% at department stores and 0.7% at restaurants. Building material sales remained elevated, rising 1.1%, although that could be because of rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.
While the top of the Reuters story was positive, it still put the core sales number in the fifth paragraph, again giving it a bit more significance:
Retail sales expanded at their fastest clip in five months in February, the latest sign of momentum for an economy facing headwinds from higher taxes and pricier gasoline.
The solid sales last month comes on the heels of strong gains in employment and manufacturing. But the improvement in the economic picture is likely insufficient to shift the Federal Reserve from its very accommodative monetary policy stance.
“The economy in February is looking solid. None of this, however, is likely to cause the Fed to change tack in the near term,” said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.
Retail sales increased 1.1 percent, the largest rise since September, after a revised 0.2 percent gain in January. That was well above economists’ forecasts for a 0.5 percent advance.
So-called core sales, which strip out automobiles, gasoline and building materials and correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, rose 0.4 percent after increasing 0.3 percent in January.
The upbeat report helped to lift to the dollar to a seven-month high against a basket of currencies. Prices for U.S. government debt fell and stocks on Wall Street slipped after a recent rally.
It’s interesting to see the difference in the treatment of the number that seems to be the most watched by traders and economists. It just shows that it pays to read beyond the first couple of paragraphs to make sure that you’re getting the full story.
by Liz Hester
When a friend texted a picture of an alert from our local television station that said “Video: Coverage of Sunshine,” I laughed out loud. Then I went to see what the story was really about since I was fairly sure that the sun rising didn’t count for news (at least not yet). It’s Sunshine Week.
The first thing I found was the site for the week-long spotlight tagged “Open government is good government,” which is sponsored by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bloomberg LP, American Society of New Editors, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
There’s a brief history of the initiative’s purpose:
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.
In 2002, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors started Sunshine Sunday after some of the state’s government officials tried to create exemptions to Florida’s public record laws. The idea spread after their efforts prevented nearly 300 exemptions to open government laws from going onto the books.
Though created by journalists, Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why.
Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.
Participants include news media, government officials at all levels, schools and universities, libraries and archives, individuals, non-profit and civic organizations, historians and anyone with an interest in open government.
Everyone can be a part of Sunshine Week. Our coalition of supporters is broad and deep. And individual participation can make all the difference.
The only requirement is that you do something to engage in a discussion about the importance of open government. It could be a large public forum or a classroom discussion, an article or series of articles about access to important information, or an editorial.
There’s a tool kit for people interested in participating in the conversation, an impressive list of events across the country, and an idea bank of records to ask for or highlighting the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
But my favorite part was reading through the stories created by asking for open records. Here are a few from the site.
Using Kentucky’s Open Records Act, the Lexington Herald-Leader discovered that the chief executive of two state agencies that lend money to college students had spent more than $50,000 on out-of-state trips, often exceeding the daily per diem limits and treating guests to $100-plus a person meals. Story
St. Louis Post Dispatch reporters filed public records requests to find out more about the environmental cleanup of a long-abandoned coke plant designed to make way for a new business park. The request generated 11,000 pages of records, which the reporters reviewed on site, rather than getting copies and likely prompting an environmental cleanup in the newsroom. The records search showed the $6.7 million project estimate was much too low, which officials knew at the time; that there was no public bidding; and that the original polluters paid only a fraction of the cleanup cost. Story
Using data gathered from a FOIA request, the Asbury Park Press reported that the federal government paid its civilian work force $105 billion in salaries in 2011 — then gave them another $439 million in bonuses. The database has been posted online. Story
It’s inspirational. My grad school fervor about the power of the media was rekindled. We often overlook the great stories in regional papers that bring about so much public good. It made me miss that heady feeling of being in the newsroom when you find something in a filing or just keep pushing until you break a story.
I thought about the late, great Mark Pittman, who had the nerve to sue the Federal Reserve and was such an inspiration to so many of us:
Pittman’s push to open the Fed to more scrutiny resulted in an Aug. 24 victory in Manhattan Federal Court affirming the public’s right to know about the central bank’s more than $2 trillion in assistance to financial firms. He drew the attention of filmmakers Leslie and Andrew Cockburn, who featured him prominently in their documentary about subprime mortgages, “American Casino,” which was shown at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival in May.
“Who sues the Fed? One reporter on the planet,” said Emma Moody, a Wall Street Journal editor who worked with Pittman at Bloomberg News. “The more complex the issue, the more he wanted to dig into it. Years ago, he forced us to learn what a credit- default swap was. He dragged us kicking and screaming.”
Then there was the story on my local TV station, a panel discussion talking about the football scandal at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
A panel discussion at 1:40 p.m. will include key parties involved in the lawsuit filed by local media against the University of North Carolina. Dick Baddour, former UNC director of athletics, and Jon Sasser, attorney for former UNC football coach Butch Davis, will join journalists and other lawyers to discuss the three-year legal battle over emails, phone records and parking tickets waged by those trying to report on allegations of athletic and academic improprieties.
Davis was fired and Baddour retired from UNC as scandal swirled that football players accepted gifts, trips and cash and were registered for classes that never met. The university, in a series of internal and external investigations, has said that the problems with changed grades and no-show classes were limited to one department and did not benefit student-athletes any more than other students.
It’s good to be reminded of why being a reporter is important and why fighting to protect open records is essential to holding government officials and others accountable. Go out and file a request – it’s an important and sometimes overlooked tool, especially in today’s fast-paced, commentary heavy news world.
by Peter Himler
Last week my former Associated Press client Tori Ekstrand invited me to speak at the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After a two–hour snow delay in New York, I finally found my way to the Freedom Forum Center on campus where Tori, now an assistant professor, and a handful of her undergraduate students gathered to hear my point-of-view on the evolution of the communications industries.
In a nutshell, I explained, we’ve entered an age when every company and every individual is a media outlet with the capacity to create and syndicate content. At the same time, nimble media upstarts with names like Buzzfeed, Politico, Huffington Post, TechCrunch, TMZ, Drudge, and a myriad others have mastered the art of headline histrionics. In so doing, they have siphoned off a growing share of the public’s ever-divided attention spans from legacy media, which today are struggling to retain the influence they once enjoyed.
I was surprised to learn from Tori that some 60 percent of the students in UNC’s journalism program are not majoring in journalism at all. Instead, they’re pursuing careers in advertising and public relations, which may be a smart move given the economic challenges the media industry continues to face, i.e., Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times, and the industry’s embrace of new hybrid ad/edit revenue-generating schemes such as “native advertising” and sponsored content.
Separately, I had forgotten that Talking Biz News’ founder Chris Roush was a senior associate dean and the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in Business Journalism at the university. Talking Biz News is a must-read for those working as or with business journalists. Chris invited me to pen a post for the site on “what’s wrong with the relationship between PR people and business journalists.”
Clearly there’s much wrong in this symbiotic relationship, but it doesn’t end with the business/financial news beat. The historical love-hate relationship between journalists and PR professionals has taken a distinct turn toward the latter in recent years and cuts across virtually every media beat.
There are a number of reasons feeding the growing acrimony between the two professions, or at least the short fuses journalists have today for PR operatives:
1. The ratio of PR people to “pitchable” journalists is now estimated at 4 to 1, resulting in email inbox overload.
2. New data-driven vendors let PR pros automate the media relations process, producing greater volumes of often misguided story pitches.
3. Journalists have many other sources for their story ideas, including those they follow in real-time on Twitter and Facebook.
4. Media relations is pushed to junior staffers at many big agencies — and in-house communications departments — with relatively little supervision or mentoring
With that said, I have to disagree with Chris’s premise that the relationship between PR people and business journalists is completely broken. The New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Kafka, CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, Bloomberg News, Reuters, the FT and countless others – including local media outlets — frequently turn to PR professionals whom they’ve come to trust for delivering timely and accurate information.
The relative number of these trustworthy PR pros may have dwindled in recent years, but I assure readers of Talking Biz News that time and information-strapped business journalists continue to appreciate and value the responsive PR pro who “gets it.”
The discipline of “earned media,” as it has become know, is alive and well and still drives the fortunes of the vast majority of PR organizations. Call it what you want – media relations, publicity, media engagement, story pitching – the task of capturing the affections of beleaguered journalists thrives. As an art, however, media relations has seen better days. Here are some likely pleas from both sides of the media relations equation.
Journalists to the PR professional:
• Do not send a story pitch without first researching what I cover.
• In fact do not send a story pitch to a target list of reporters without knowing what each and every person on that list covers.
• Please refrain from sending me a manifesto. If you cannot articulate the story in a couple of sentences, then don’t bother sending.
• Keep the email subject line newsy, not cutesy.
• Take the time to learn and understand what you are pitching.
• Deliver on the promise, i.e., don’t offer an executive for an interview and then be unable to produce him or her.
PR professionals to journalists:
• In spite of the voluminous number of pitches landing in your inbox, please try to reply – even in the negative — if the pitch is within your coverage area. We just want closure.
• If the pitch is not in your specific coverage area, but still editorial valid, please forward to an appropriate colleague.
• Please know that if you do not respond to our overtures, we will be free to take the story idea elsewhere.
• Please know that we would be happy to serve as your arms and legs when you’re in a bind.
• Just as you have a job to do, so do we. Civility is preferred.
Of course, the savvy communications professional today is no longer solely reliant on (and suppliant to) editorial decision makers to have their stories or POVs shared. The PR profession now has the creative capacity and a range of publicly accessible media platforms to deliver content directly to the public, bypassing the media filter altogether.
Does the profession (and its clients) still covet a business feature in The FT or on the Bloomberg News wire? You bet.
But as public consumption of news and information migrates to mobile and social, the PR pros no longer have to endure the indignity of getting dissed by a stressed out reporter who paints all PR people as evil. Alternative means for engaging end audiences via independently produced content are on the rise.
Peter Himler is a principal at New York-based Flatiron Communications.
A few weeks ago I used this column to complain about how marketing fundamentals were invading the public relations field and eroding media relations basics. New tools for a new era of engagement has had a sweeping impact on the public relations field.
While I firmly believe that this new way of thinking has been largely detrimental to media relations, there has been some interesting new ways to use media relations for a marketing effect.
The idea came to me when I was looking at Twitter and saw that a notable technology editor at a national business publication had blasted out a tweet about a bad PR pitch she had received. Apparently, some PR agency had sent her a pitch about a limited time deal at everyone’s favorite doughnut shop.
At first glance, this made absolutely zero sense. Why would a tech editor care about donuts?
Reporters, especially business reporters who tend to focus on specific, often times esoteric topics like the mechanics of a leveraged buyout, are flooded with poorly targeted emails. In fact, it happens so often most reporters I know are completely unfazed by these wandering bits of mail.
However, after a closer look I am a believer that the wayward doughnut pitch was not in fact poorly targeted, but perhaps a clever new way of utilizing media relations. (Full disclaimer, I was not involved in this pitch, so my theory below is only rooted in an understanding of current practices that may or may not have been applied to this email.)
The impact of the internet and social media on news media has been talked about ad nauseum, so without diving into a broad examination of this changing field there is one important evolution reporters should understand. Journalists are no longer simply the arbiters of information for their specific beat but are now influencers of the general population (especially those that engage on social media). For public relations in the modern era, influencers are fundamental tools to deliver a message.
Consider that this tech editor maintains an active Twitter account with thousands of followers. The information she shares with her community of followers is not confined to technology news, but is filled with updates about her day, opinions about the tech industry and general musings on life.
In this light, one can certainly argue that the doughnut pitch was not a common PR misfire, but perhaps a targeted approach to a highly influential consumer.
What if she had tweeted in the past about her love for this brand? Would a PR person then be off-base to assume she wouldn’t be interested in what’s happening with this brand? Either way, when she took to twitter to alert her followers about the pitch, and the marketing promotion it highlighted, a PR objective was achieved.
Is this the best way to practice media relations? Absolutely not.
I can’t imagine there is a reporter out there who would condone increasing the number of bad pitches they get.
To be clear, I am not condoning sending business reporters consumer PR pitches just because they have an active twitter account. Targeting and thoughtfulness in any approach to media are still the most important considerations, but in a new media era carefully targeted pitches don’t necessarily have to address a reporter’s beat.
by Chris Roush
Louise Story of The New York Times writes for a Columbia University website, Covering Business, about how an MBA can help a business journalist.
Story writes, “Accounting, Statistics, Excel – if those sound like dirty words to you, you might consider forcing yourself to learn them. The basic concepts of accounting – flows versus stocks, for instance – come up not only for business reporters, but for political reporters looking at budgets and foreign reporters examining international aid. Or take “a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people botch that one, but it is a basic financial rule known as the time value of money and it’s critical for reporters sizing up a company’s worth. As for Excel, if you gain confidence with it, as B-school forces you to, then functions like pivot tables and filters will become your secret weapon in journalism, helping you spot stories that other people miss.
“In 2009, I wondered if bank pay would be going up or down after the financial crisis. I couldn’t look at total compensation at the banks because some had larger workforces than others. I had to look at compensation per employee. So into the bank financial statements I went. I designed a basic Excel spreadsheet and hours later, the result was in: bank pay was going up. Ditto on stock market volatility. Lots of traders were saying 2011 was more volatile, but they were speaking anecdotally. So I plugged the year’s stock closing pricing data into Excel, and soon, I had an answer. Last year, I wondered how much states give companies in tax credits and other subsidies. Once again, a little numeric literacy came in handy. In all these cases, I was able to give readers answers that didn’t exist without my analyses.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Technology such as Twitter is diminishing the value of journalism, Bloomberg editor in chief Matt Winkler said in a speech Tuesday in Dallas on the Southern Methodist University campus.
Kelsey Charles of The Daily Campus writes, “Social media and the idea of demonstrating information have become more popular than ever in recent years, but to Winkler, this newfound ‘spontaneous expression’ comes at a cost.
“‘The value of journalism is diminished by technology that allows us to obtain information or misinformation by a keystroke,’ Winkler said.
“Winkler cited incorrect Wikipedia profiles and misinformed tweets as examples of the negative affects of technology in journalism.
“‘We are in the age where people can say whatever they want to and they do,’ Winkler said.
“He further expanded on this idea by quoting Mark Twain: ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,’ Winkler said.
“For Winkler, there are five ‘F’s’ of journalism that he believes every journalist and media outlet should abide by: Be the first, final, fastest, most factual and future word.
“‘You want to be the first word and the fastest word, but you also want to be the final word,’ Winkler said.
“‘The more determined you are to be the first word, the more determined you will be to be the final or future word.’
“While breaking news is important, Winkler emphasized the idea of being correct.”
Read more here.
The quick pace of social media and the Web have escalated the importance of getting a story right the first time and avoiding errors as a journalist, said Forbes managing editor for business news Dan Bigman in a conference call with Forbes contributors from New York Tuesday.
“Just correcting an error doesn’t necessarily correct the problem,” Bigman said. “If you fix the mistake later, it is already out in the wild and running amuck, with the quick nature of social media.”
Bigman and Forbes editorial counsel Kai Falkenberg outlined some key practices of good journalism to prevent mistakes from being made the first time around. While many of them are obvious, the topic serves as a good reminder on how to maintain credibility as a reporter and uphold the integrity of news organizations.
“There’s a mindset that people have a much higher tolerance for getting things wrong online, but that’s a misnomer,” Bigman said. “You have a real impact, good or bad, and sometimes real people get real lawyers and sue. But it’s more than self preservation.”
Citing bad sources are one of the most common ways that a journalist will make an error in a story. Linking to or citing someone else is not the same thing as actually getting the story correct, Falkenberg and Bigman said in the presentation.
“If someone else is wrong and you repeat them, you just double down on their error,” Bigman said.
Avoiding incorrect sources can be done by reading multiple sources before rendering judgment, reading an entire story before linking to it and making sure that the source is current and hasn’t been corrected itself.
Bigman told a story of a business journalist who managed to tank a stock by writing about an old news story about the possibility of United Airlines filing for bankruptcy as if it were a breaking news event.
Additionally, some sources may have an agenda, and it is important to see where an organization that issues reports receives its funding.
You Didn’t Get the Other Side of the Story
Journalists always need to ensure that they are getting the full and accurate version of every story. With sources and PR people having agendas, if a story is underreported, a journalist runs the risk of getting used and publishing an inaccurate story — even if they reported all the facts they received correctly.
Excuses like “but the company told me so” doesn’t serve as a legitimate excuse because at the end of the day, sources only want one thing. Knowing the source and trusting them is important, but a reporter shouldn’t be friends with them, Bigman said.
If a reporter cannot figure out the agenda of someone they are talking to for a story, they should step away or ask directly. Furthermore, Bigman frowns upon letting a source see a story before it is published, including quotes from the source.
“Ask specific questions to clarify a topic as opposed to sending them a chunk of what you’ve written, Bigman said. “If they’ve said something great, controversial, meaty and then you show it to them and they want to retract it, then where does that leave you?”
Not Skeptical Enough
Dictation is not journalism, Bigman said during the conference call.
“A good source is not someone who is quotable,” Bigman said. “A good source is someone with accurate information.”
Maintaing a certain level of skepticism when speaking to all sources and researching all information is crucial, and keeping this guard will prevent embarrassing mistakes.
Rushing to Publish
General sloppiness when rushing to publish a story before competitors leads to a majority of mistakes that happen on a daily basis among reporters. Most errors are typo or numbers-related, Falkenberg said.
Bigman suggested to “measure twice, cut once” before publishing a story, meaning that a reporter should double check all numbers, read a story backwards, use spell check and get a second set of eyes to read a story.
“You can tank a stock if you get data points wrong while writing quickly,” Bigman said. “Be careful when writing about earnings of a big company, as it’s usually billions not millions.”
Writing Outside Your Area of Expertise
When a journalist is assigned to a certain beat, they become an expert in that topic, of the people who matter in the industry and of the companies they cover. When a journalist strays outside his or her area of expertise to report a story, errors may often occur this way.
“Don’t get in the mindset of, ‘Well, this topic was getting traffic so I had to say something,’” Bigman said. “Write about what you know and don’t try to be smarter than you are.”
You Made a Mistake, Now What?
Every news organization has its own way of handling factual and typographical errors, but Bigman and Falkenberg outlined some practices that are fairly standard across professional agencies.
For smaller typos, whether spelling or data points, the correction should be made in the body of the story, with an acknowledgement of the correction at the top or bottom of the story.
“In the correction, you just want to move forward and say what’s right,” Bigman said. “Just say that something was misstated in the previous story, don’t repeat the error.”
Falkenberg highlighted the importance of due diligence before making a correction so that the reporter doesn’t have to issue a more than one correction by getting it wrong a second time.
For more major errors, its imperative to contact an editor immediately and discuss with someone in higher authority about how to treat the error.
“We (Forbes) very rarely take down posts, and the act of taking down posts generates a lot of coverage itself and often gets magnified,” Falkenberg said. “It’s very hard to undo an error once it’s there.”
A few weeks ago I was catching up with a reporter, who I have come to know well, over a few beers.
In the course of our conversation I asked him about his recent interactions with other PR people. This is a question I ask all the reporters I know because the stories are all over the place. Sometimes I learn good tips or pick up interesting intelligence, but most of the time I just like to hear about the antics that go on in our industry. As I have said before, there are many strong, smart PR practitioners in this field, but there are also too many who put a bad name on the field.
It was no surprise then to hear that just a few days earlier this reporter had recently been berated by a PR person that questioned his IQ level and overall ability to read. The altercation was over a column this reporter had written questioning the logic behind a company’s strategic decision. He said the dispute came down to a disagreement over semantics, but that he did end up revising the column a bit.
I am sure few reporters are stunned to learn about this story and even less that can’t share a similar tale of PR abuse themselves. What struck me as interesting about this particular altercation was that the antagonistic PR person was someone I knew and is well-respected in the industry. This wasn’t a younger flack who doesn’t know better. This was an experienced veteran and his actions are revealing of two distinct schools of thought in practicing media relations.
PR people, particularly those who work “in-house” at a company or manage corporate reputation, are first and foremost employed to protect a company’s image. When a reporter is working on a story a helpful, if a bit extreme, analogy is to compare it to a hostage situation. The reporter plays the role of the hostage taker, the PR person is the law enforcement official and a company’s public image is the scared prisoner of the reporter.
A PR person can approach this situation in one of two ways: work as a negotiator to gently coax the hostage taker to release their captive or bust in the door and forcefully take back the hostage.
A negotiator will work with the reporter to better understand key points, engage in a fact-based debate, concede points and work to get a fair conclusion for both sides. The result may include a more nuanced story or a reporter re-evaluating the news value of the piece all together. While this is a preferable way to engage with media, sometimes the situation calls for a more forceful approach.
The SWAT team approach focuses on using force and intimidation to convince a reporter to back off potentially damaging points. Instead of engaging in a debate, the PR person engages in forceful declarations and threats of going to an editor, or cutting the outlet off from “access.” There are entire agencies built on the belief that this is the only way to interact with reporters.
Believe it or not, many times, the result for both tactics can in fact be the same. Force is not always the “feel good” way to go, but we are all humans and all have a response to conflict. Conversely, this is the same reason why reporters employ a forceful approach, because it produces results.
However, a more forceful approach brings along substantial risk that 1) the reporter will only be further incentivized to write the piece negatively or, 2) take every opportunity to point out company failings moving forward and most risky of all, 3) publish a piece specifically focused on his interactions with the PR person.
As I mentioned in my first column, the relationship between PR and journalists is fundamentally built for conflict. Smart PR is always cognizant of this conflict and understands the best way to engage with a reporter in every scenario.