As a marketing and public relations expert and educator in the healthcare industry for more decades than I care to admit, I’ve been struck by the “she said, he said” between the New York Times’ original reporting entitled “Maggots, Rape and Yet Five Stars: How U.S. Ratings of Nursing Homes Mislead” and Steven Littlehale, with his rebuttal published here in McKnight’s.

I have a few thoughts, and some constructive advice. 

The underlying plea I heard in Littlehale’s article was, “Can’t we all just get along?” Well, I agree, and I think the industry and the media can get along; although, perhaps not in the way you might be thinking. 

Hear me out.

The role of an investigative reporter is not to “work with you” or “get along with you.” Their job is to investigate, much like a police detective or a prosecutor would investigate. They may get a tip-off from a vetted source and they match it up with their editorial processes and make a decision on whether or not to pursue the story. In order for them to pursue, the evidence has to be there – not a conclusion, mind you; just the evidence that “something may be off here.”

In this particular case, Jessica Silver-Goldberg and Robert Gebeloff, part of the NYT’s data journalism team, decided to pursue. Next, you may ask yourself, “Well, why didn’t they come to us first?”

Again, it’s a fair question, but it’s not their job. Their job is to delve into the issue using objective methods. In this case, the New York Times has its own Research Department, which it appears Silver-Goldberg utilized, in order to run fact checks and negate any biases. That’s a legitimate journalistic practice. 

Their conclusions were obviously not welcomed or liked by the nursing home industry, and I understand that, too. In fact, that was the crux of Littlehale’s retort, citing specific examples of how their reporting was “lazy.” 

Disagree? Make your case.

So here we are: “She said, he said.” Who is right? And where do we go from here? 

Here’s my opinion. We need to know who is right. Steven Littlehale is a widely respected clinician, consultant and educator in the long-term care space. I personally highly value his thoughts and opinions. He’s principled, smart and passionate about this industry. I want him to be right. We all do.

But we can’t just leave this sit here as a “She said, he said.” We need to know. The truth matters. 

So here’s my advice: If you disagree that the NYT article is based on facts, then you have avenues to make your concerns known. Of course, you can complain to each other if that makes you feel better, but the best route you can take is to show, fact-by-fact, how the original article was false, misguided or misleading. You prepare a request for a rebuttal review by the NYT. 

They will listen. They will review your claims carefully.

How do I know? I reached out discussed it with the reporter. Here was his response: 

“… everything in our story is the result of 6+ months of research and interviews with countless people in the industry and academia. For every fact in our story, we try to make clear the attribution – whether we got it from a document, lawsuit, interview, or database. We take this all very seriously and if there’s something specific that you think is wrong in our story, I will explain how we came up with it and what the attribution is.”

So there you have it. If this article is wrong, they are bound by public corrections and even libel laws. These practices and laws exist to hold the media accountable to their reporting. However, in such a process, the reporters are also permitted to refute your facts step-by-step; and, if it turns out that you are wrong, then you owe a public correction of your own. 

You have other avenues available to you as well. You can write a Letter to the Editor of the NYT laying out your case, or you can submit an Op-Ed essay. Either one can be done by submitting to [email protected]. If done in a fact-based manner, written objectively, and if your thoughts are timely from a news value perspective (like this one is), then you stand a good chance at getting coverage and being heard. 

That is how it should work. We cannot say “fake news” when we don’t like something that is being reported. On the other hand, we cannot let articles from one of our largest national newspapers “sit out there” with false or misleading information. Either way is a dangerous practice that further muddies the truth and does a disservice to the providers, the patients, their families and the public at-large, not to mention our democracy. 

Follow the process.

There is a process to working with the media. If you follow it, then you can build bridges with them. Pushing back without going through the proper process is not the best way to work with them. Nothing will ever change — the relationship will always remain adversarial and we’ll still be stuck in the “She said, he said” land of confusion. 

I implore you to try something different, and here is your opportunity. This reporter wants to answer your questions. The door is open and here is your chance to walk through it and build a bridge with the media.

Beyond this opportunity, I urge you build relationships with your local newspapers and media outlets, too. Proactively tell and show them what you’re doing, and why. Invite them in, so to speak. They’re not always going to publish what you like, but that’s not their job. Their job is to publish the results of their independent reporting in a fair and balanced manner.

Your job is to work with them as proactively and transparently as you can. And, please, don’t shoot the messenger. If you need ways on how to build these bridges, there is help in our industry on how to get there. Like it or not, the regulatory and media spotlight is shining brightly on you — and so long as you are caring for our nation’s most precious and vulnerable people, that spotlight will never go dark. 

Pam Selker Rak, president of CommuniTech, LLC, is a seasoned marketing and public relations strategist, tactician and educator in the long-term care and post-acute care industry, working with providers and suppliers alike to help solve the industry’s toughest marketing challenges.