What do you do when the media misrepresents you?

It can be worth being feisty and resolute, but it's also important to be aware of the pitfalls, reports John Plummer

When the Daily Express published an online article headlined "39 of the World's Worst Mugshots" in April 2015, the charity Changing Faces decided to take action. The story was a slideshow of people with facial disfigurements alongside captions such as '"Girl or alien? We can't quite tell", and "This woman looks like she should be on the cast of The Walking Dead".

A charity that supports people with disfigurements could not let the article go unchallenged. "A lot of people on our Facebook page said it was disgusting and offensive," says James Partridge, founder and chief executive of Changing Faces.

The charity regularly asks newspapers to amend online articles about disfigured people, but the Express refused. Partridge complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, saying the story had breached clause 12 of its Editors' Code of Practice, which forbids prejudicial or pejorative references to individuals' physical illnesses or disabilities.

After mediation by Ipso, the newspaper removed the story and issued a statement: "We accept that the article was in poor taste and we apologise for any offence it may have caused." It also agreed to send a copy of Changing Faces' guidelines on facial disfigurement reporting to its online journalists.

If you don't correct something at the time, it is harder to deal with if it pops up again

Aidan Warner, NCVO

Partridge was delighted with the outcome, although he describes the four-month adjudication process, which concluded in August last year, as "slow and cumbersome".

"It was definitely worthwhile," he says. "Ipso showed it has some teeth." But some national newspapers, including The Guardian and the Financial Times, aren't Ipso members, which leaves them beyond the regulator's reach.

Sometimes charities get results by dealing directly with newspapers. In April this year The Sunday Telegraph claimed the Department for International Development had "pulled" funding from the global poverty charity War on Want because anti-semitic remarks had allegedly been made at meetings sponsored by the charity.

John Hilary, War on Want's executive director, says the charity had received no DfID funding for years and, after exchanges with the newspaper's editor and legal team, the online headline was amended from "Charity backing anti-Israel rallies has state cash pulled" to "Charity backing anti-Israel rallies no longer receives state funding".

There was no apology and the story wasn't removed, but Hilary says the change of headline and a statement from DfID confirming the funding situation allowed it to tell supporters the story was inaccurate.

Hilary, a former BBC journalist, says charities need to "be feisty and resolute" with the media but also "set objectives smartly and be cognisant of what's achievable".

One charity press officer, who wishes to remain anonymous, says charities should decide whether newspapers have made a genuine error or are pursuing an agenda. "If it's the latter, be more robust," he says.

Donald Steel, a specialist in reputation and crisis management, says charities should distinguish between errors of fact and opinion. Factual errors, he says, should be pointed out as quickly as possible before they get repeated: call, he says, and say "we can see how you got this wrong and would be grateful if you would correct it", then follow up with an email: "In most cases you will get a favourable response. If you don't, go to the news editor or editor." But he warns against seeking corrections for opinions, which are more difficult to challenge.

Steel adds that charities can avoid inaccurate reporting by putting more facts about themselves in the public domain.

The Daily Telegraph published an apology in February after the National Council for Voluntary Organisations complained to Ipso about an article that claimed one in five charities spent less than half of the funds they raise on charitable activities. "If you don't correct something at the time, it is harder to deal with if it pops up again," says Aidan Warner, senior external relations officer at the NCVO.

Warner says busier journalists and a more scrutinised sector are recipes for inaccurate reporting, and charities should be prepared by identifying a lawyer or adviser they could turn to out of hours. "It's worth setting some budget aside for legal advice as a contingency," he adds.

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