Toxic Journalists

When I was an intellectual property litigator, I learned something unfortunate about the world of journalism: Journalists can be horrendous bullies. If you run a fast growing technology company, chances are you have discovered this truth the hard way.

Most journalists are principled. But some journalists are afflicted with a boundless narcissism that allows them to cast truth aside. These toxic journalists have a number of powerful tools at their disposal that can make it difficult to stay focused on building a great company. Let’s consider just three of them:

Distortion of facts or context: The distortion of facts or their proper context is a common strategy employed by unethical journalists. Though doing this breaches the obligation to accurately report events, many journalists will manipulate the presentation of an event in order to paint you, your management, or your company in the worst possible light.

Amplification of harm: An ethical journalist will do whatever is within her power to minimize the harm associated with a story. To do this, she will treat the targets of her criticism with basic human respect. In addition, she will also present information impartially so that citizens can draw their own conclusions.

Media manipulation: Because journalism plays a critical role in preserving a healthy democracy, journalists rightly receive a healthy benefit of the doubt by the news media and the wider community. However, toxic journalists often leverage this privilege inappropriately to generate support for a perspective that is not well-supported by the facts.

If you are unfairly attacked by a journalist, take a step back and consider taking the following steps before you officially respond:

What is your central goal? You must decide what you would ideally accomplish in responding to an attack before you can start crafting a message. For example, if a journalist raises a legitimate issue hyperbolically or unprofessionally, you need to carefully decide whether your primary goal is (1) addressing that issue or (2) responding to the journalist’s lack of professionalism.

By first getting clarity on your central goal, you will be in a much better position to consider whether a public response to the story is wise or necessary.

Do you need to respond? Now that you have a clear goal in mind, ask yourself whether a response helps you further that goal. An official response – particularly to a story you believe to be unfair, unprincipled, or unethical – should only be given when that response is a well-crafted part of your overall strategy for moving forward.

Responding publicly and taking internal action are separate decisions. You could very well decide to take action within your company to address a problem raised by a journalist without issuing a public response to the story. And sometimes, this is precisely what you should do to protect your company’s future.

If you respond, optimize your central goal. Whenever a story breaks that highlights a weakness in your company’s management team, product, employment practices, or strategy, an official response should accomplish two things.

First, the response should be authentic. If you need to apologize for something, apologize directly and without tacking on distracting, self-serving qualifications to the apology.

Second, the response should highlight actions not aspirations. Tell the relevant community the practical steps your team will take to move forward and solve the problem.

You may have noticed that none of the above steps involve legal action. There are many situation specific reasons for avoiding the courts when you can achieve your key objectives without litigation.

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