The Most Potent Word in Journalism

It’s one of the most potent words a headline writer or a reporter can use, and if it’s used to describe you or your organization, it’s clear what the writer thinks, but more importantly what that writer wants the reader to think. You’re guilty.

The word is, “Denies.”  As in, “The company denies wrongdoing.”

Let’s put this proposition to the test. Let’s say a headline writer wants to make you look bad for not walking on Mars. Yeah, the planet that no one from earth has ever visited. All he has to do it feature the headline, “Sarah Doe Denies Walking on Mars.”

The word itself suggests that the accusation is truth and that you are denying the truth. If you are described as denying anything, this frames you as defensive, guarded, trying to hide something, and therefore, guilty in the court of public opinion.

When you are described as a denier of something, it’s designed to put you in a bad light.

On the other hand, if a headline writer or reporter does not want you to look so bad, they may substitute the word “denies” with the words, “accused of.” As in, “Sarah Doe Accused of Walking on Mars.”

That would give you just enough wiggle room not to come across so negatively. In this case, the seeds of doubt are planted in the credibility of the accuser and not in the culpability of the accused.

These words suggest that the accuser could be making it up, using false allegations on which to frame you or your organization, and possibly that you should be given the benefit of the doubt.

So, what do you do when a headline writer frames you as denying something?

The first rule of thumb would be, don’t make it any worse, and this can happen very easily. Once you or your organization has been described as denying an accusation, you can’t do anything preventative. The accusation and characterization are already in the public domain, and they are already working to shape perceptions.

What you can do, however, is avoid playing into the hands of your accusers by engaging according to the ground rules they have already set by creating a narrative designed to work against you.

If you “double down” or try to explain away or dismiss something that you cannot prove, you can reinforce the negative narrative that is already unfolding, whether that narrative is fair or not.

This happens in the court of law all of the time. How can a defendant prove that he did not do something if he did not do it? For this reason, the justice system itself places the burden of proof on the accuser, not the accused.

In the court of public opinion, the rules are completely the opposite. This “court” usually places the burden of proof on the accused.

What you have to know going in is that you are not obligated to accept the premise of the accusations. The decision not to accept that premise and not to engage as your critics expect may be your first and most effective course of action. You don’t have to accept their premise or their “facts” associated with the accusations.

Once you know your messaging, craft them and deliver them according to your perceptions of the situation and not those of your critics.

Take the high road.

The worst thing you can do is try to split hairs on which accusations have merit or have some element of truth, and which ones do not. Once you do that, you have committed to the narrative your critics have already created, and you very well could be endorsing it. And by then, you are likely so far down the rabbit hole of that narrative that it will be very difficult to change course, and even more difficult to change perceptions.

It’s better to create your own narrative. If that narrative finds certain common ground with other points of view, so be it. But it’s very important to make it clear that your narrative is the right one and it’s yours, not the baseless one created by your critics.

One other thing, if you find that you or your organization are accused in this way, don’t be in such hurry to respond that you risk creating more problems. There is a big difference between a timely response and a hasty one. A thoughtful, careful response is much more effective than a kneejerk one.