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Media and Crisis Management

Unscrupulous Reporters

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Crisis Management: Unscrupulous ReportersUnderstanding reporters – from the archives

What, if anything, did the NY Times fiasco with deceitful former reporter Jayson Blair – and the later Rathergate debacle at CBS over the incorrect story about the President’s National Guard record – mean to you as a businessperson? Some suggestions in a minute, but Blair’s behavior reminded me of these reporter failures I witnessed when I was a journalist:

  • I was about to break a story on Guilford County (NC) plans (later dropped) to pipe in water from Rockingham County’s (NC) Mayo River. My sources wouldn’t tell a competing reporter which river, and rather than be beaten to the story, he “guessed” that the Dan River was the target and reported it as fact.
  • A reporter asked to leave with the rest of us from a legitimate closed meeting of Greensboro (NC) public officials, left behind a tape recorder to secretly and illegally record the meeting anyway.
  • A newscast producer I worked with once showed Mount St. Helens video on a Pennsylvania TV station saying it was a local volcanic eruption, as a joke.

Other cases I’ve encountered since becoming a crisis PR consultant:

  • A client trying to turn around a disastrous situation called in reporters and explained how outside experts would soon fix the problems. One reporter ignored the reason he was invited, hammered my client for the original mistake weeks earlier, and said nothing – not one word – about the corrective efforts.
  • I made a formerly close-mouthed client available to a reporter to tell how we were making a bad case better. In exchange, the reporter agreed not to ask about a sensitive legal part of the case. When the interview began, the reporter almost immediately began asking about that legal matter anyway. Eventually I asked him to stop the interview because he was violating our agreement. He turned the TV camera on me and ran a story saying, in part, that a PR person – me – tried to hide the truth from the press.
  • Big clients often gripe about mistakes by national journalists who sometimes refuse to correct original insults, and others who filter everything through a negative perspective.

Surely you understand that these are exceptions to most reporting. It’s just that reportorial breakdowns, especially local ones, are rarely discussed publicly and are worth mentioning now that Jayson Blair has blown open the door. Please remember that you have bad actors in your industry, and journalism does too. The key for business people is how to think about these outliers, and what, if anything, to do about them especially since their reputation might one day be on the line.

Expect reporters and their stories to follow a bell curve. A few will be terrific, some may be awful, but most will be okay.

Tough fair journalists are like “jackals on the plain.” This is especially important for those who distrust the press. Tough fair reporters are like hyenas in Africa that eat the dead and weak. It’s an unpleasant but necessary process to keep the remaining animals strong and disease-free. Someone accountable to no one has to be able to challenge the status quo. This IS a good thing and can apply to the media itself. For instance, when I worked for a news outlet in St. Louis, we worried about media critic Eric Mink of the Post-Dispatch. Watchdog Mink, now with the NY Daily News, would nail us for poor reporting. He forced us to be better.

But most journalists are not in attack mode, therefore…

Your business needs reporters. News stories carry more credibility than advertising. Good articles attract clients, build image, inoculate the public against future mistakes by you, and might minimize bad news.

Finally, there’s an imperative that grows out of Jayson Blair’s duping of his editors with bogus reporting. Complain if you?re wronged! Times reporters who investigated Blair found that few of his subjects ever complained about his inaccuracies. Without red flags from outsiders, his deceptions often went unchallenged and thus unnoticed. Crying foul sends a message that something is amiss, and might – might – get you satisfaction, to wit:

A client once talked to a TV reporter about some union allegations. We were horrified when his entire interview was excluded in the 6pm story. We complained, a news producer admitted they lost track of the interview, and fixed it. The client interview was prominent in all subsequent newscasts.

In the case I mentioned earlier where a reporter hammered my client and ignored efforts to fix a problem, I complained afterward. A week later he rectified his mistake and even called to ask if the story was satisfactory. The reporter was in the middle of the bell curve after all, as most are.

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