The truth and nothing but the truth – What to do when false information circulates through the press
“Fake news” was the buzzword of Donald Trump’s administration. But what can you do when false information is really being spread?
It has never been as easy to create publicity as it is today. Even if journalists do their best to expose false information as such, misinformation about you may still circulate through the press. What can you do to mitigate the impact?
Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression
Can you do something when false information goes through the press? Every communications specialist has encountered this case in the course of his or her career: A negative piece of news about one’s own company gets into the public domain. Theoretically, this is nothing unusual, since journalists are responsible for informing people about misconduct and grievances. But if the information is false, it can quickly have an unjustified negative impact on the company’s reputation. Now is the time to act, and act quickly. But the first question we have to ask ourselves is: What kind of false information is it? Is it false information that is actually true but taken out of context or wasn’t meant to be shared with the public? Or information whose content is completely factually incorrect?
The former is annoying and can severely damage a company’s image, but communications managers have their hands tied when it comes to well-researched reports about actual events. The freedom of the press and the freedom of reporting by radio and film are regulated by Article 5 Paragraph I 2, 3, Paragraph II GG and by federal states’ constitutional provisions. Even if the author clearly formulates a criticism or personal evaluation, little can be directed, since the author can invoke the right of freedom of opinion.
"Real" Fake News
In the case of factually false press releases, however, those affected have various options available to them to defend themselves against the dissemination of said information. Before deciding to take these measures, however, one thing should be weighed: Is the allegation so serious that I am willing to put up with having to bring the issue to the public’s attention again by setting the record straight? There is a risk that more will come out then may have, had the case was never brought into the public light. However, if the damage caused by the publication is so serious that it is necessary to insist on correction by the press medium, there are several approaches.
Letter to the editor
The simplest approach is to attempt to write a letter to the editor in the case of an untrue allegation and deliver it to the press medium. In this first step, you don’t need an advocate for your point, something which spares you the relationship with the editorial office, and one can place one’s own opinion. However, a letter to the editor should not be written without informing the editor in advance. He should know that the untrue statement, which is expressed in his opinion, has been noted, but that you have a different opinion on the subject and would like to make it known. This shows mutual respect and helps to increase the chance that the letter to the editor will also be published on fair grounds.
Correction by mutual agreement
Before resorting to legal means, it is possible to make a correction by mutual agreement. In consultation with the editor and with content already formulated in advance, a correction can be made to avoid legal action. Should the publishers refuse this correction, the legal reaction will be a direct result in protest of their decision.
Every editor voluntarily undertakes to uphold the ethical standards for journalism set out in the Press Code when carrying out his or her work. These 16 paragraphs regulate, among other things, diligence in research as well as the obligation to correct published news or allegations that subsequently turn out to be false. If a piece of information has nevertheless been incorrectly researched or understood, but the medium claims to be correct, the best way to correct it is by means of a counterstatement. It must be ensured that both communications can reach the same group of addressees. The counterstatement must therefore be disseminated in comparable size, appearance and scope via the same channels as the initial communication. It must be recognizable to the reader that the previous message was wholly or partially incorrect. Therefore, a counterstatement refers to the preceding false report when reproducing the correct facts. The true facts are described, even if the error has already been admitted to the public in another way. In the case of online publications, a counterstatement is linked to the original article. If it is made in the article itself, it is indicated.
The Internet has created multiple new communication platforms that are used by different players with their individual messages. Although it is easier to correct content errors online than in print formats, the Internet never forgets. After consultation with the author of the text, the correction can be made by the latter directly within the amount. If it is not a case of serious misinformation, a published correction notice can be dispensed with. The same applies to social media posts. However, if it is a serious error, the same tools apply as it would for classic print.
It pays to act early
In the case of press inquiries, the questions they ask can be used to identify a potential issue at an early stage, specifically, whether future reporting is leaning in a direction that will cause serious damage to a company’s reputation through misinformation. This would then not be compensated even with a correction or payment of damages. It is then often advisable to call in a lawyer sooner rather than later and announce any legal steps if a certain message were to be further disseminated. Cease-and-desist declarations in conjunction with contractual penalties in the event of infringements prevent repetition of the disseminated message. Especially in the case of tabloid journalism, press law information letters and warning letters have had an effect in this context. This has not quite been the case for investigative journalism. At that point, it would be advisable to offer background discussions and information and to place one’s own PR campaigns on the respective topic.
When resorting to legal advice, however, one thing must be clear: The relationship with the editorial team will be permanently impaired. Going through a lawyer is the last resort to defend oneself. While there are cases of willful false reporting, these are rare exceptions. A wise way to deal with the issue would be to talk to the journalist and find out the reasons for his criticism or misinformation. Mistakes can happen, even to a journalist. Even an unintentionally forgotten word can completely distort the information content of a report, without it having been intentional.