“If the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
The source of the attack on reputation has been identified. The facts have been established, and the evidence is in hand. The critical next step is to confront the source of the false reporting. Deciding how and when to respond to an attack is the most delicate step in the process of protecting reputation. The goal is always the same—to remove the false statements from publication and obtain an acknowledged correction of the record. But, whether that goal will be achieved quickly and completely, without resort to litigation, will often be determined by the effectiveness of the initial engagement with the media outlet.
The first contact should almost always be with the journalist who has had primary responsibility for publication of the offending story. She or he will never be happy to receive such a call and will often ask for an interview or statement that is couched in an offer to “be fair” and “tell your side of the story.” This is, of course, a trap for the unwary. There is no other side when a story is not true. A false story should never be published. Giving the author of a false story the opportunity to repeat the lie—as a pretext for telling “your side of things”—will only compound the problem and diminish the prospect of obtaining a correction or retraction quickly. So, the message should be simple and clear. The story contains false statements, those statements can be shown to be false with hard evidence, and the journalist has the immediate opportunity and the duty to correct the record before other steps are taken.
A story that must be withdrawn or corrected in a substantive way after publication is a source of professional embarrassment to any journalist. For that reason, most writers can be expected to actively resist an initial effort to force a retraction or correction. While this first step will rarely yield immediate success, it is a necessary prelude to engaging the people responsible for managing the media outlet and avoiding litigation: the editors, publishers and lawyers. As soon as the first contact is made with the journalist responsible for the false story, no time should be wasted in taking the matter to the next level. There, the message is the same: The story includes false statements that have done harm to reputation. The evidence to prove that those statements are false is in hand. Immediate action by the media outlet to correct the false record is necessary to avoid legal action.
While this approach will prove consistently effective with established and mainstream media outlets, the same may not be true with the independent bloggers, posters, Tweeters and other denizens of the far reaches of the Internet. A letter or call from a major corporation, a well-known person or a prominent law firm may be taken as a signal that some degree of prominence has been achieved. Such publishers of false statements have little or nothing to lose and may be delighted to have attracted attention from important quarters. When confronted with these circumstances, a key question to be answered is whether the source of the false story is of such little consequence that any formal action should be taken at all. As the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw famously noted, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” Wise words—even in the Internet age.