“Just the facts, ma’am.”


This best known quote from the TV series Dragnet was never actually said by Sgt. Joe Friday…or at least not quite. It was used in a pseudo-parody movie with Dan Aykroyd adapting the phrase from two similar statements: “All we want are the facts, ma’am” and “All we know are the facts, ma’am.”

The abbreviated expression flows smoothly. With many such pop culture misquotations today, what’s the problem? Is the real meaning misconstrued, a reputation bruised or a brand diminished? No.

This leads to a perennial question among leaders who are quoted, or more precisely, misquoted, in traditional or social media, on issues far more serious, and with their professional standing at stake.

To Fix or Not to Fix?

Some of you know the panic and denial. “I didn’t say that. I would never say that. I would never say it that way.” What’s to lose if you contact the media to complain or correct the error? The result may be that you create unnecessary attention, look petty, prolong the story or antagonize the reporter. Reporters rarely retract minor errors.  What’s the answer? In most cases, let it go. In most cases, it’s not as serious as you likely feel that it is.

The preponderance of misquotes and appropriate attempts within media and watchdog organizations to correct them continue across society.

Fact-Checking Arises from Politics

In the political arena, there are now organizations and websites dedicated to fact-checking ads and campaign claims such as the Annenberg’s Public Policy Center’s website known as factcheck.org. It seems imperative to know the truth before casting your vote. Media have often enough disparaged political candidates while actually bungling their own reporting, particularly if a candidate has made gaffes before. After much media mocking, The Los Angeles Times was one of the few outlets to acknowledge that Sarah Palin was right in saying Paul Revere warned the British.

The Internet’s Impact

As early as 1988, an online university tome on fixing an Internet worm was copyrighted to ensure only the correct verbiage was disseminated, noting that media had misguided the public. It’s easy for misinformation to fly around the world within seconds, whether through the media or others.

Because social media is an online conversation, consumers emboldened by relative anonymity can launch attacks, providing inaccurate information or misquotes. Additionally, in a blog I read recently, Rob Reuteman of the Society of Business Editors and Writers noted that mainstream media is now painted with the same broad brush as “advocacy media” such as the Drudge Report or The Huffington Post.

The Associated Press continues to update its guidelines regarding erroneous tweets, making its reporters more accountable. Most reporters have same-day (or less) deadlines. They’re typing as quickly as they can to beat their competition.

Improve the Odds

Reality is that the news media are the decision-makers on what to write or broadcast. But you possess more control than you may realize, with the following tools:

  1. Prepare. Read, confirm and practice out loud what you want to convey. Have a knowledgeable PR professional provide feedback to ensure you are clear, concise and accurate.
  2. Stay on track. The more you say, the more you stray. Determine what your messages are. Then, stop when you’re finished.
  3. Go slow. Don’t pressure yourself to rapidly respond to a question. Take a breath and make sure you understand exactly what’s being asked. If a reporter asks several questions, all at once, choose one to answer first. Or simply ask the reporter to repeat each one, one at a time. Even if you’re nervous, slow your speed of speaking to ensure clarity of thought.
  4. Put it in writing via email, note card or backgrounder/fact sheet and give that to the reporter to ensure accuracy on the media’s part. You can then focus on your main messages. Proof what you’ve written. A missing word or typo can change the entire meaning of your message.
  5. Ask back. Most reporters are genuinely concerned about objectivity and getting the facts straight. Ask for the quote to be read back to you…while the reporter is still interviewing you. The media are not obliged to ask an interviewee’s permission of a final article.

Bottom Line?

My advice, as a former news reporter who’s remained involved in media relations over the decades,  remains the same. Correct only when necessary. Collaborate with others so as to not overreact.

When is it necessary? Only when no correction will cause far more harm than leaving it alone.

What’s more important? Getting a perfect quote or alienating the media and impeding future, positive news coverage?

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4 Responses to ““Just the facts, ma’am.””

  1. Angela Holt

    As a former news reporter and talk show interviewer, I agree with the ‘tools’ that you offered. The media is intimidating, but can be handled effectively if the interviewee uses your advice.

  2. Marilyn Lane

    I appreciate this thoughtful article. Am I cynical in thinking that the more esteemed some reporters become, the less they seem concerned about objectivity? Some of our national media cause me to wonder.

    • Marilyn,
      Thanks for your thoughtful response. You’re among many (including me) who believe that there is definitely a trend among some networks or reporters who take a perceived point of view rather than remaining truly objective. Columnists always have been considered free to state an opinion or take a stance. Bloggers certainly embrace this, too. But it’s worrisome when a person can spend an entire day listening only to journalists who advocate for one side of an issue or political party.

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