As journalists, we don’t get squadrons of letters complaining about the things we’ve written. The fact that we don’t write about politics probably helps a lot (by definition, any political reporter is susceptible to attack by people who disagree — even if the article he or she has written is 100% based on accurate information and solid quotes).
Still, it’s the nature of the game that journalists who publish to a wide audience are going to hear back from time to time from that audience — sometimes simply to correct a genuine error, sometimes to dispute the thesis of the piece, sometimes because there’s a desire to vent.
It has long been a pet peeve of ours, that said, that many note writers (now, mostly communicating by e-mail) feel some kind of need (go ask Freud) to be vituperative in tone, whether or not they have a reasonable dispute with the journalist. Many a note begins with words like: “It’s unfathomable to me that you call yourself a journalist even though you clearly have no grasp of the topic about which you recently wrote, and have no respect for the facts.”
With the expansion of media outlets, there may well be people writing who really have no respect for the facts. But we think they are few and far between. And that group doesn’t include us.
Why be rude? It doesn’t do anyone any good. It doesn’t make it more likely to get a retraction, an apology or even a civil letter in return.
So, rule number one is the same rule as we’d like to see governing the world: Be civil. That will get you more attention, and ultimately, more satisfaction. Maybe you can persuade the journalist that there’s another side to the story told, and he or she will write a follow-up piece. We’ll never forget the note that Rich got some years ago suggesting that the writer hoped that his mother would be hit by a Mack Truck. The combination of outright hostility and specificity was jarring, and went far enough that he never wrote back. A few other rules of thumb:
- Be clear as to what the errors you’re complaining about actually are. Indicating that “this article was so riddled with errors that I can’t believe it,” doesn’t even give a journalist the opportunity to provide a defense or admit failure. And if you can’t really cite a specific error, but just disagree with the conclusions of the piece, then say that.
- Tell the journalist exactly what you want. Are you looking for a retraction, or just to help the writer get things righter in the future?
- Try to avoid getting the journalist’s name wrong. This is just silly. But you’d be surprised how many notes we get addressed to Mr. Barrett and Ms. Greene, when in fact our genders are the other way around.
- Unless there’s a good reason not to do so, let the author know who you are, beyond your name. This has become more of an issue since e-mail became ubiquitous. People sign off with a first name, and don’t give the writer any idea what kind of mindset they may have, given their job. (Of course, everyone who takes the time to write deserves equal respect — whether it’s a 12-year-old fulfilling a school assignment to write a letter to a journalist or the governor of a state.)
- Try not to sound like a lawyer, unless you are a lawyer.
- Be clear as to whether you’re writing in order to let the writer know about an error, or to dispute the conclusions. In our case, we’ve gotten far more of the latter group than the former, and — given the opportunity — will reach out to the correspondent to talk things over. Some of these conversations have actually resulted in long-standing, positive relationships.