Got a complaint? Call me, but don't yell

May 28, 2002|BY LIZ THOMPSON

One of my job responsibilities as city editor is to serve as the complaint department.

People who are unhappy with coverage, people who were covered and didn't want to be, people who find errors in stories, people who didn't like a photograph, people who didn't like where a story ran in the paper and anyone else with a complaint are usually sent to me.

Most of these people are, I'm happy to say, polite. We talk reasonably and in adult-like fashion - almost always on the telephone - about the problem or complaint. These calls are productive.

If we've made a mistake, having it pointed out by you helps us, hopefully, to never repeat it.

While we hate to make mistakes, we take pride in correcting those mistakes. The Herald-Mail is one of the few newspapers that always corrects a front-page mistake with a front-page correction. All other corrections are published in the upper right-hand corner on Page A2.


Learning why someone was unhappy with the way something was phrased or the amount of information that was used gives us an opportunity to evaluate what we did and whether we want to continue doing it that way.

We learn from your calls and our mistakes. We become a better newspaper from these calls and, sometimes, the readers finish the conversation with a better understanding of why we do what we do.

Then, there are the less pleasant and less productive complaint calls.

For future reference, may I suggest some "do's" and "don'ts" when calling to register a complaint. All of these are based on real conversations I have had in the past year.

n Don't start the conversation by telling me you don't get the paper but you "heard" there was something in it about you (or a friend, family member or neighbor) that was wrong. In almost every call I've taken like this, what the person heard was wrong. People who don't get the paper (and they should) can usually find the article they have questions about on our Web site.

n Do have the story in your hand when you call. I will also get a copy so that we are talking about the same thing, reading the same sentences, and so on.

n Don't question my religious beliefs. This happened recently when a caller was expressing his dissatisfaction with a court story we published. He and I disagreed on whether the story we wrote was the cause of his losing his job or whether the crime he had been charged with was the reason. When he said, "You're not much of a Christian, are you?" the conversation was over.

n Do think about what you want to say before you call and the points you want to make. What do you want out of the call: just to register your dissatisfaction with an article, to get a correction, or to change the way we do something?

n Don't yell. It will be a very short conversation. I make a sincere effort to get people to calm down but I will only take yelling for a short period of time. If it continues, I usually hang up.

n Do make the call. If you don't understand why we did or didn't cover something, if you wonder why the story was written the way it was, if you thought it left out important information, then please call us. I do want to talk to you about it.

Every day we juggle dozens of requests for coverage, try to stay up with state, county, city and town governments, report on schools and still handle breaking stories. We want every newspaper we publish to contain information that interests our readers.

Liz Thompson is city editor at The Herald-Mail. You can reach her at 301-733-5131, extension 7682, or by e-mail at

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