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When the Media Go Too Far
What can you do if reporters break the rules?
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 by Jonathan Bernstein
Bernstein Crisis Management

Jonathan BernsteinEveryone expects journalists to be pushy, 
to report facts less-than- accurately at times and to insist on a level of access to information that makes both attorneys and PR professionals cringe. 

To a significant extent, that's their job and those of us who respond to the media "dance the dance" with them and hope for some balance in the resulting coverage.

Sometimes, however, reporters and/or the media outlet they serve go too far.
They cross the line from aggressive to offensive. They insist on publishing
facts which have already been corrected by reputable sources. And when they
do, there is recourse other than just taking it in the teeth.

When Reporters Get Offensive

In an actual situation that occurred in 1999, a reporter for an Arizona
newspaper, assigned to coverage of an ongoing business crisis situation,
apparently got frustrated at his inability to obtain interviews with certain
representatives of that business. The organization in crisis had decided, at
that point, to communicate only by written statement. The frustrated
journalist called the administrative assistant to one of the business'
outside attorneys and insisted on talking to the attorney. When she,
appropriately, told him the "party line" that all media calls were to go the
PR director of the business (where he'd already called without success), he
threatened her. He said that he would publish HER name as the one
responsible for information not being available to the public.

She contacted the business' crisis management consultant, who advised her
boss, the attorney, that the reporter was in gross violation of journalistic
ethics and advised him to write a letter explaining what had happened to
legal counsel for the paper. He did and, after some communication back and
forth, the paper not only apologized to the assistant in writing, but gave her a 
free subscription -- and the reporter became the subject of an internal investigation. His bullying tactics stopped.

When the Media Ignores the Facts

If a spokesperson for an organization in crisis has repeatedly communicated
demonstrably accurate information to the media only to see it not used, or
has made statements that are repeatedly misquoted, the same tactic of having
legal counsel communicate with legal counsel can often make a positive
difference. Usually, first, you want to establish a trail of evidence that
you have, in fact, taken every reasonable action to get the facts corrected.
You've sent polite written corrections to the reporter(s) involved. You've
met with him/her in person to explain your perception of the problems.
You've met with his/her supervising editor. And the problem persists.

If a media outlet's editorial bias is so strong that it won't cooperate even
if threatened with more formal legal action, it is time to remember that the
media is NOT your most important audience. Why? Because it's the least
manageable and it has an agenda of its own. There are a lot of ways "around"
the irresponsible media outlet. One is considering use of "advertorials,"
perhaps even in a competing outlet (if there is one). That is the process of
buying advertising space -- print or air time -- and putting your own
message in there, formatted to look or sound just like news coverage. Sure,
it will have to have the words "advertising" somewhere in the piece, but
studies have shown that well-done advertorials are almost as well received
by media audiences as regular news coverage. And you control the message.

In addition to, or instead of advertorials, consider whether the audiences
important to you or your client are actually being negatively influenced by
the media coverage? And is it their primary source of information on the
subject? I have known of cases where, when asked, key audiences tell client
companies that they don't believe the media coverage and think reporters are
on a witch hunt. It could well be that, by simply increasing positive and
accurate DIRECT communication with key audience members (more phone calls, letters, meetings, etc.) about a crisis situation that you will balance out
the inaccurate negativity in the press.

Remember: we're not at the mercy of the press as much as some members of the press would like us to believe. And at its core, "the media" is just people
like you and me. People in every profession "break the rules," they violate
the ethics and responsible business practices to which they allegedly
subscribe. Reporters and editors are no different. And not only do we have
ways to respond but, if we don't, we're tacitly encouraging the

Editor's Note: If you want some guidelines to help you determine if a
journalist is being unethical, read the Society of Professional Journalists'
Code of Ethics

Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management LLC, editor of the Crisis Manager newsletter, and author of 
Keeping the Wolves at Bay: A Media Training Manual. 

In 2005, PR News recognized him as one of 23 consultants 
nationally "who should be on the speed dial in a crisis."

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